Mel Glenn Essay - Critical Essays

Mel Glenn American Literature Analysis

As a Brooklyn public school teacher for more than thirty years, Glenn found sources for poetry in the materials most readily at hand—the voices of the thousands of kids that surrounded him every day in hallways and classrooms. Understanding how that material has been shaped into poetry begins with three influences Glenn readily acknowledges: the country music that played on the family radio while he was growing up, the journalism that first defined his writing style, and the folk music he discovered during its heyday in 1960’s New York. From country music, Glenn learned to appreciate the impact of stories and sharply drawn characters, how voices give immediacy to stories, and how the most unpromising lives are rich with unsuspected drama. Journalism honed Glenn’s observational skills and his curiosity as well as his keen ability to listen and record events around him. It also nurtured his enduring fascination with those materials. The folk song movement instilled in his poetry not only its inviting colloquial ease but also its fierce populism, its steady, if underplayed, outrage over the problems facing contemporary culture (specifically, for Glenn, adolescents). Like folk music, Glenn’s poetry does not endorse street-level activism but rather exercises language to reveal, illuminate, and dissect significant issues and problems that can be addressed only after they are first acknowledged.

Glenn revitalized young adult poetry, recognizing that young people often approach poetry with dread and find traditional poetry dense, inaccessible, and requiring lengthy classroom analysis and the often condescending “help” of teachers. Glenn’s characters, however, speak in an accessible voice unadorned by stylized language or poetic conventions. His poetry does not deploy the intricacy of irony or elaborate symbolism, difficult ambiguities, or involved wordplay. The poems happen in the ear—they are, after all, essentially voices. Rendering the street language of high school kids is hardly simple transcription—Glenn has often cited his revision process, weighing each word for its pitch-perfect aptness to achieve the sonic rhythm of unforced music. The poetic form itself, however, never obscures Glenn’s driving interest in story and character. Indeed, his voices draw out the implications of familiar high school types—the nerd, the tramp, the jock, the underachiever, the poor kid, and the isolated minority. Without trivializing adolescence with the condescending voice-over of an adult author or sentimentalizing the period with simplistic nostalgia, Glenn’s oeuvre speaks of the terrifying loneliness at the heart of the adolescent experience, the confusion—both anxious and exhilarating—of defining an “I” within a context of uncontrollable circumstances. Glenn’s “ordinary” speech invites reader identification and sympathy; each voice is given individuality and importance, thus creating a rich immediacy. In elevating the dilemmas of the threshold experiences of adolescence into verse, Glenn recovers these everyday pressures into the music of language, giving high school experiences the traditional privileges of literature.

My Friend’s Got This Problem, Mr. Candler

First published: 1991

Type of work: Poetry

One by one, high school students “speak” to their guidance counselor and reveal concerns in plainspoken free-verse monologues.

“I’m here/Like always.” Thus closes Mel Glenn’s 1991 collection of interrelated poems. The lines are spoken by the overworked, if infinitely patient, high school guidance counselor, Mark Candler. It is Friday afternoon. Just as Mr. Candler is about to close the office for the week—and take his car in for a muffler repair and himself to the dentist—a student has appeared at his doorway, and the dedicated Mr. Candler quietly understands that his own errands, indeed his own life, must wait a bit. Here is another student whose crisis deserves airing, whose voice deserves to be heard.

Mr. Candler’s generous response defines Glenn’s own democratic vision, born of his long commitment to the classroom: the conviction that every adolescent voice deserves an audience. The name Glenn selected for his guidance counselor—Candler—provides some insight. It suggests a profession that provides illumination, here the counselor’s patient ear. No student problem presented in the collection is resolved; the therapy here is honest confrontation rather than treatment. Because each voice speaks in monologue, because the voices never directly speak to each other, Glenn creates an unnerving sense of distance, underscoring the unsettling isolation of adolescence with voices that never receive an answer. These are unsettling poems that raise dilemmas without...

(The entire section is 1960 words.)