April is National Poetry Month for Americans. The Academy of American Poets hands out poetry books to high school and elementary school students in this month every year. A charity event that calls for donations for the development of poetry will be held at Lincoln Center in New York, and will attract celebrities from all over the country. Some Hollywood stars will come to this party all the way from Los Angeles. Oprah Winfrey, a well-known American talk show star, of course wouldn’t miss the fun. She invited a poet onto her show to tell his story of how he became a poet, following his heart while his Jewish parents expected him to become a doctor or a lawyer, which is the general expectation Chinese parents have for their kids.
There might be only a few Chinese people who still think China retains its traditional high regard for poetry. However, to an outsider, Chinese students’ capacity to appreciate poems is still impressive. Peter Hessler, an American who graduated from Princeton University with a degree in English Language and who holds a Master’s degree in Literature from Oxford, worked for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer teaching English literature in a teachers’ college in Sichuan province. As an exercise for his classes, he told his students the rules of writing a sonnet, then handed out one of Shakespeare’s sonnets to different groups of students with the lines out of order, and let them restore the sonnet to its original order. There always would be 2 or 3 groups of students who successfully put the lines in the right order, which amazed Hessler. “This was something few American students could do,” he wrote.
“[American students don’t] read enough poetry to recognize its music, a skill that educated people lost long ago. But my students [at the Chinese teachers’ college] still had it — nothing had touched that ability, not the advent of television or even the pointed devastation of the Cultural Revolution,” wrote Hessler.
Why did Hessler mention the popularity of T.V. in particular? Many Chinese feel that college students’ Chinese language skills, especially in writing, is declining nowadays. Chinese patriots attribute this to the excessive zeal for learning English. However, American college students’ writing skills are also on the way down. American scholars generally view the 1970s as a turning point, when pop culture replaced elite culture as the dominant trend. Having traded reading Homer for singing Madonna, people’s writing skills are doomed to degrade.
This turning point in China appeared at the turn of the century. Cha Jian-ying, who was inspired by the cultural change in America, took an interest in studying similar phenomena in China and wrote a book called “China Pop,” which has been regarded as a textbook by American college students learning about Chinese culture. (Americans are actually more interested in modern Chinese culture.)
However, there is still gratifying news from American public school students. Last summer, I took a friend’s daughter to a summer camp, where the kids were all from American middle class families. One day, I phoned her to ask what she was doing at camp and she told me that at the bonfire party, the teacher asked them to make up two sentences ending with two rhymed words, noon and moon. “The teacher wanted to build up the kids’ poetry skills,” I thought. The child continued her story and told me that most of her campmates said: We learn about the flowers and trees in the forests at noon/and sit around the bonfire in the evening to watch the moon. But the teacher spoke highly of one girl in particular, because her answer was: I’m a singing siren under the moon/when the tide flows it is my noon. This girl has a beautiful imagination. I guess she has probably listened to her parents telling her the story of the siren in Homer’s Odyssey at home.
Editor’s note: Peter Hessler’s quotations are taken from his book, River Town.
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