Completely Subjective: Richard Howard’s “A Proposed Curriculum Change”

I think I chose Howard’s “A Proposed Curriculum Change” because I was flipping through the 2012 edition of “The Best American Poetry” and I saw the words “Fifth-Grade Class” and I just had to read on. The words feel soft and warm and familiar and recognizable and even the poem’s structure compels me further forwards, through an almost ballad-like induced motion. Yet, instead of traditional tetrameter and trimeter, I’m faced with four line stanzas separated by two line interludes. And I’m transported back, back to the first couple weeks of AP Literature this year, back to singing ballads stanza by stanza, back to being lulled in by easy rhythm and welcoming language, back to being jolted suddenly awake by a stray penknife through the heart.

As I’m reading Howard, I’m looking for that balladic twist, that one moment that’s going to separate the fifth-grade-letter from the poem. And I’ve found it, found it in the foster-mother-mouse that ate her adopted children, found it in the casual, conversational way Mr. Mort told that story, found it in the letter that these elementary school students wrote, found it not in one sentence but in the entire poem, found it in the words “Fifth-Grade Class” in the third line. And like the scientists, like the litter of newborn mice, I’m lured in, expecting a poem but finding a letter, a letter so ordinary and comfortable in its conventionality.

I’m expecting to find a poem but I find a letter and that’s good enough! Just like a foster-mother-mouse is good enough! If I’m expecting a mother-mouse at least I’ve got a mouse and a mother, which is fine in theory, but I’ve never really seen a foster-mother-mouse, just like I’ve never seen a grade-school-letter-poem, but I’ve seen those words all separately, so I think I know what to expect but hey! I actually don’t, because my foster-mother-mouse is planning on eating me, and so are these imaginary fifth graders writing their imaginary letter. They’re going to eat me. Maybe I’ve already been eaten. Maybe I’ve already been eaten by this poem, maybe I was eaten from the moment I saw the words “fifth grade” and saw something of myself among those ten letters, some familiarity, something comforting, and then the poem opened its jaw and swallowed me whole.

Contemporary poetry is animalistic. It’s animalistic because there’s no form set in stone to hide behind, it’s animalistic because it’s raw, because it’s humanity stripped down to our very core, down to our blood and guts and fingernails. And at its root, “A Proposed Curriculum Change” is animalistic as well. It’s about a group of fifth—and two fourth—graders learning how to be human, how to not become that foster-mother-mouse or that adopted litter, how to not be eaten and how to not be the one doing the eating, how to feel yet remain, how to experience but also think.

And maybe I’m not the one who’s been eaten alive by this poem. It was the fifth graders, it was always the fifth graders, struggling with their foster-mother-mouse, with the animalism heaped upon them one week-day morning during a school trip, during what was supposed to be a safe haven, what was supposed to be their home, their mother-mouse, what was supposed to help them learn and grow and become safely human. But instead they were eaten, eaten by the real world, eaten before sixth grade, eaten before they could understand how to cope.

It’s almost ridiculous that they wrote a letter, a letter to address these concerns—a well written well thought out well worded letter, yes, but a letter nonetheless. It seems so fifth grade, so young, and maybe that’s the point of Howard’s poem. Maybe we’re all fifth graders, stumbling through life, trying our best to be more human than animal. Maybe we’re all fifth graders, struggling to express our horror at the world’s animalistic tendencies, and humanity’s ability to somehow, against all odds, overcome those tendencies. Maybe “A Proposed Curriculum Change” is our letter, a letter to life and ourselves.

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