200. You Are Odysseus: Linda Pastan

Cultural currency is squat these days.

You can’t talk about misogyny and how we’re taught cultural norms from media because no one knows the basic princess stories anymore (and that they, traditionally, always wait for Prince Charming to save the day–of course, boys and girls still carry around the traditional norms). Grimm’s Fairy Tales are something from a bad horror story with none of the original facts correct (No, Hansel and Gretel did not use crossbows); as they have never heard the original they don’t know any better (and, never, ever the gory fates that went along with them). One of the lesser discussed outcomes of this generation turning away from Judea-Christian religion is that before you teach any kind of symbolism you first have to teach them the Bible.

This was once all assumed. Cultural currency.

And while the minute details of Greek mythology might not be necessary to run a metal press, I’d like kids to know when they gas up at Mobil what that winged horse is (Answer: Pegasus). Kids don’t know!

Insert cranky old man joke here.  Fine. But I’m teaching those myths so when they work for NASA they can name their rocket something cool.

Discuss myth. What do they know? Discuss the purpose of…. anything we teach them. Word origins, symbols, structure….  Who cares? What’s the purpose of a story? Of heroes? What goes bump in the night, and why does she have snakes for hair?

But this is about poetry. Here is a list of poems someone put together. I found Ms. Pastan’s poem there, and could put out twenty more posts from it (but I won’t, probably….).

The next question to ask is: Can we understand a poem without knowing who someone like Odysseus is? Do we need the Wikipedia definition? The teacher telling us? Or to read The Odyssey ourselves to “get it”? How much culture do we need to know before we delve into the world?  (Honesty: I would not have made it through my T.S. Eliot class in grad school without an annotated edition of his poems).

Think about their own kid culture. The AV Club blog/magazine has a series that identifies the key episodes of various popular shows for those just discovering it. For students: Choosing a topic YOU know, what 5 episodes, songs, stories, books, etc. does someone have to watch, listen to, read, etc. to “get it”? If I want to “get” Sponge Bob, what five episodes will explain it? Have them create the list and share with the class (depending on how far you go with this, watch out for content and appropriateness–you know your community).

What is cultural currency today?

As for Ms. Pastan: Do they “get” this? What myths should ever kids “know” in order to be literate? Brainstorm as a group and then teach them where the gaps are. Or have them teach each other.

You Are Odysseus
Linda Pastan

You are Odysseus
returning home each evening
tentative, a little angry.
And I who thought to be
one of the Sirens (cast up
on strewn sheets
at dawn)
hide my song
under my tongue—
merely Penelope after all.
Meanwhile the old wars
go on, their dim music
can be heard even at night.
You leave each morning,
soon our son will follow.
Only my weaving is real.


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