Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Harry Potter, Poetry, and Academia

I have an ambivalent attitude towards Harry Potter, I admit. I've never been able to get into the books. I found the first two somewhat simplistic, very much children's books. I stopped reading, although people have assured me that the books get better and better as the series progressed; I certainly hope so, as I can't imagine the writing style of the first two spread out over 800 pages.

Let me just say it early in this post: I really admire Rowling, especially her accomplishment in getting children to read. I don't feel the way I do because I'm jealous.

I remember some time ago, before the New York Times separated children's books out of the bestseller list, there were two Harry Potter novels on the list, along with the Seamus Heaney translation of Beowulf. It must have been the summer of 2001. I was teaching a Brit Lit survey class, and we spent some time pondering this state of contemporary literature, as we slogged through an older translation of Beowulf.

I also have an ambivalent relationship with the Harry Potter movies. Some of them I've really liked. Some of them only hold my attention sporadically. There are themes that move me deeply, like that loss of and longing for parents.

Over the week-end, I watched Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. It was a dark movie, and I'm not just talking about the subject matter. The film was so darkly lit that I literally couldn't see much of it. I let the movie play, while my husband watched, and I quilted

There were some scenes that made me look up from my quilting, however. I loved the scene where Harry teaches his classmates how to use their powers. He talks about the older wizards and says, "If they can learn to be wizards, we can too." I immediately thought of that scene as a metaphor for the creative process. Most of us start off faltering. We try on different voices and styles. We experiment with different media and delivery systems. We imitate first this elder and then that one. If we keep at it long enough, we discover our own powers, and we soar.

I also looked up from my quilting when the horrid Dolores Umbrage takes over the defensive magic class. She tells the students that they won't actually be practicing magic, but they'll steep themselves in theory. She tells them that they don't need to learn how to do magic, but instead, they must become good at test taking.

I laughed, even as I winced. Her words reminded me of the battle between the theorists and the creative writers in grad school. We had one budding theorist who said, "Literature is the dung pile from which the sprout of theory can bloom." There weren't many examples of people who would like to do both, not many contemporary examples at least, and the MLA Job List didn't encourage us to be Renaissance people who followed our fascinations and interests wherever they led us.

When I started teaching, I tried some experimental approaches. I remember the shock of a more traditional faculty member when I told her that I let students in a typical English 102 class write short stories. I said, "I think you can learn as much about short stories by writing one as you can by writing about short stories." She looked at me as if I had suggested that we sacrifice puppies in the yard at midnight. And yet, to this day, I believe it, although now, I give students the choice (and sometimes, with my art students, I let them respond to the short stories in media other than words--let them paint, if the purpose of the class is wider than just a writing class).

Those of you who teach public school can say more than I can about the movie and what it has to say with our current testing craze.

I admire Rowling and her ability to imagine this alternate world. I admire the ability of the filmmakers to translate this much loved series into film. As a life-long English major, I really admire what Rowling does with language--and has there been an author since Dickens who has such pitch perfect names for the characters? I find much to admire, and thus, I find my ambivalence doubly baffling, but I've decided to dwell in this mystery and not dwell further on it.


Shefali Shah Choksi said...

and i promise you, such dwelling shall be most beneficial!
i understand your reserve about the Harry Potter world. but think of it like this: it resonates so loudly because essentially, it crystallizes our complex, internal conflicts and presents them in very concrete, ultimately solve-able symbols & characters!
i shan't give up: i am still hoping it'll do its magic on you!

Anonymous said...

Harry Potter is the shiz!