Friday, March 09, 2007


HBO's weekly "Def Poetry" unexpectedly grabbed me by the ears a few weeks back, and I've become an accidental but devoted fan. I stumbled on this half hour gem because it follows Bill Maher's "Real Time," which I try not to miss on Friday night. I can't afford too much devoted fan time, so I'm not that easily hooked. (If I didn't subscribe to HBO, I'd be left with HGTV, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, the History Channel, and the T-Wolves. Okay, I guess I do have my devotionals.)

Anyway, I gave it a look because I've been impressed with "Def Poetry" host Mos Def in one film after another, most recently "16 Blocks" with Bruce Willis. Good film. Before I noticed him in movies, I associated him with hip hop or rap--not sure which and not sure I know the difference--which isn't one of the choices I punch into on my car radio, but it's a form that has given rise to many wonderful performers, like Mark Wahlburg and Queen Latifah. So I hung around for a few minutes after "Real Time" thanks to Mos. Those few minutes, a few fresh voices with their considerable passion and promise, and I was hooked.

Halleluiah, the beat goes on!

These kids are feelin' it. They want to change the world, just the way we did back in the day. Frankly, much of the rap I'd been able listen to and decipher didn't appeal to me. What I heard was a lot of glorification of violence. Not that we're not subjected to that in other forms of "entertainment," but that's what I had come to associate with rap music. I like to think of myself as open-minded, and I have an abiding interest in the teenage mind. Plus, I've got a rock 'n roll heart. I remember what it feels like to be young and rebellious and determined to change the world. Rock music has long been a voice for the social conscience. I didn't hear that voice in rap music, and that worried me. Coming from the group that said "if it's too loud you're too old," I was beginning to think I was getting too old. But maybe I wasn't listening.

So I'm really glad I tuned in to "Def Poetry." It's all about young people speaking their minds and undoubtedly getting so much resistance from all sides. This show provides a forum for some powerful voices. Stop, children, what's that sound? They perform their poetry, offering universal themes in contemporary rhythms and words. I am mesmerized. Everybody look what's goin' down. Mind you, I don't have teenagers in my house anymore, and it's been more than 20 years since I taught high school English, but I miss having daily contact with those voices. There's nothing more crucial in any society than intergenerational communication. We can't develop without it. We'll be too busy reinventing the wheel. Understanding and relating among the generations is a theme I love to read about and often write about.

Which brings me to another reason I've glommed onto "Def Poetry": writing. Back in my school marm days I was a big believer in student writing, and I got involved in curriculum development in a big way. I was worried about increasing class sizes and seeing a decline in the amount of writing that was going on in school. My daughter recently started taking college classes again, and she's been bemoaning the fact that she really doesn't know how to write a research paper. (So, yes, off we go to the library, Daughter and her personal trainer.) But I can't tell you how many times I've heard teachers say that they don't have time for student writing because they "don't have time to correct it." Yikes! I'm sorry, but text messaging and e-mail-speak doesn't quite get it. I know every generation has its own language, but I every writer needs good, solid, functioning tools.

Has anyone else watched Def Poetry? What do you think? Can you dig it? What are your hopes and fears for--the age-old lament--"kids today"? With all the technology available to them, are they mastering traditional forms of communication? Do they need to? Is writing relevent? How about grammar? Where do the languages of young and old intersect--or do they?


Helen Brenna said...

Never watched Def Poetry, Kathy, but I can see I might have to check into it.

I've been extremely reluctant in embracing/accepting rap/hip hop. The violence and objectification of women are offputting for me. Lately, though, I've realized there are some artists who are changing rap's rep. We can hope, anyway.

My fear for our kids is that they may become so dependent on being "connected" and entertained that they will be unable to spend quiet time alone.

Writing seems to still be relevant. My kids still have to do papers for school and I think colleges require more writing today than when I went. But reading ... I worry about that. Too many other forms of quick entertainment.

Stuff to think about.

And, Kathy, you're pretty cool! Staying connected with young people is important in staying young in our lives.

Michele said...

I haven't seen the show, cause I don't get HBO. Loved Mos Def as Left Ear in The Italian Job. I'll have to check out 16 Blocks.

My kids have always had lots of writing to do in high school for some report or other. But it seems like it's in classes like History or Science. In English they sit and watch movies! Oy.

What concerns me is the lack of good spelling skills. Just this morning my son left me a note to 'pick up sampoo'. What's sampoo? I'm constantly correcting his spelling. I just don't think teenagers nowadays are taught the importance of good grammar and spelling. It's overlooked, it seems, in schools.


Cindy Gerard said...

I have the same concerns you do, Kathy about what this new generation is missing - not only academically but on a really basic level. I lament that my grandchildren are growing up in a world where they are missing out on fundamental child rearing techniques such as "go play outside"
Do you remember playing outside? In the sandpile? On the swings? In the woods behind the house and looking for bugs and frogs and God forbid, a snake? do you remember hide and seek after dark and riding a bike without a helmet and skinning your knees and such simplistic games as Annie, Annie over and saving money to buy something you wanted instead of going out and putting it on a credit card?
Lord. I'm dating myself but the truth is, I wish these things for this generation because they would find out so much about themselves if the web and UTube didn't constantly have them on the hunt for what is happening in someone else's life.
Hum. didn't realize I had that little tirade in me. And yes, I worry about their writing skills too. I thank God our daughter in law is a teacher and recognizes the value of 'self-entertainment' in the form of art projects and the like and has presense of mind and spirit to make certain our grandchildren will experience those simple things. Would that every child had such an advantage.
Oh - and no. I haven't seen Def Poetry :o) Which is what you asked about.
I'll crawl back in my cave now.

Keri Ford said...


I looked at teaching school about a year ago, and what I saw was, teachers don't have the time to teach like they used to. When in high school, I had journal entries everyday for several different classes, had to be at least one page when I was in school. With all the new educational requirements the teachers are forced under now, they literally don't have the time to look at twenty different journal entries per class, per day. (Which is why I am no longer studying teaching. Everything is so polititcal in the classroom now.)

Now, in my on-going college career of a professional student, I've writen until my hand has nearly fallen off, and yes, a teacher at one institution I visited had us hand writing stuff rather than computer typing (I'm talking a year or two ago).

While the computers are nice, the ease of it is wrecking our hand writing (as in penmanship) in general and I think part of the problem with writing skills. It's very easy to rely on those little red and green lines to 'fix' your grammar without ever learning the rules.

Christie Ridgway said...

Keri: My older son has such bad handwriting that I was thrilled when it came time for him to turn in things printed by the computer! I worry how he's going to do on college "blue book" exams because the prof will have to work pretty hard to decipher his handwriting. But he did really well on his APs so far, even the ones that require writing (European History, American History, and English) so maybe teachers are accustomed to it.

Kathy: I've got to check out "Def Poetry." That sounds right up my alley. As for rap, I hear it around my house and car and some I like, some I don't. I did just read an article in my newspaper this week that it is declining in say it all sounds too much the same.

Kathleen Eagle said...

When you hear these kids perform their poetry, you'll make the connection with the music. I used to use song lyrics in class to get into poetry, and I'd use this show. What a gift to the English teacher! Now days I guess you have to worry about who's looking over your shoulder in the classroom, but I was lucky when I was a student and as a teacher that censorship hadn't become the issue that I suspect it is now.

My younger son started a poetry group when he was in high school that kept meeting through the summer at a Starbucks. A coffee shop poetry group! But he had to do some fast talking to convince the powers-that-be that high school kids would stay after school for poetry. Years later and half a continent away his cousin recently did the same thing--got a high school poetry group started!

Def Poetry is on tonight. If you get HBO, give it a try and let us know what you think. Or just check out the link on this post for a taste.

If you don't get HBO, why bother with cable? Seriously, I cannot believe the drivel, drek, and crap that passes for TV programming on some of these channels. Unbelievable. Thank Heaven for books!

Kathleen Eagle said...

Speaking of spelling mistakes, I just caught one in my post. Corrected it. Spelling was never my best subject, guys. Grammar was always pretty good, but I had to work at spelling. Still do. Heck, there's no shame in looking stuff up, right? Never quit learning, kids.

Has anyone seen "The Bee Season" with Richard Gere? Good film. Loved the way his daughter visualized the spelling words and the way they showed that in the movie.

Kathleen Eagle said...

If anyone watched, you noticed the poets' language can be strong. Just wanted to say that I would certainly not use this kind of material in a high school class indiscriminately. You'd have to pick and choose. A couple of weeks ago there was a piece done in tandem by a young man from Ireland and a black poet from the US. It was about gun violence, and it was incredible. Also one called "Hands" done by a young woman that was wonderful. Last night one of the poets decried a show of disrespect for women, especially mothers. Now, the language was salty, but the poem was powerful. If we're going to educate in our schools, especially where "the world is too much with us" I truly think we have to get real. And while this is certainly adult material, it's well-written, well-executed, and the message is positive.

One of the poems from last night was called "Disclaimer"--about the writer apologizing in advance for the work, and if you're a writer, it was funny and so true--and here I am with mine. Didn't want people to think, geez, she'd use that in the classroom? Good thing she's not teaching high school anymore. But, yes, I think this is good stuff, powerful stuff, and while a lot of it deals with mature subjects, the message is refreshing. It stands the chance of taking the conversation beyond the bravado. So much of what passes for entertainment these days is about titillation and instant gratification.