Taylor Mali, born on March 28, 1965, is a poet, teacher, author, and voice-over artist. Originally from New York and known to be a proud WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant), Mali attained his Bachelor’s degree from Bowdoin College and his Master’s from Kansas State University. Mali then began teaching in 1990. For over nine years, Mali’s subjects ranged from English to History to Math to SAT preparatory classes. He is known to be an avid advocate and defender of this profession, especially through his various works. This includes one of his most popular books entitled What Teachers Make: in Praise of the Greatest Job in the World. Mali is also the author of various books from 2002 to 2014, including Bouquet of Red Flags, The Last Time As We Are, and What Learning Leaves. In the year 2000, Mali started a twelve-year “Quest for One Thousand Teachers” which was fully accomplished in April 2012. Through this challenge, Mali established “one thousand new teachers through ‘poetry, persuasion, and perseverance.” He marked this triumph by cutting and donating twelve inches of his hair to the American Cancer Society. In addition, the New York Foundation for the Arts Grant helped Mali to begin his “one-man show about poetry, teaching, and math” in 2001 called Teacher! Teacher! This show won “best solo performance at the 2001 Comedy Arts Festival.” Mali is also credited as the former president of Poetry Slam, Inc. and has been the National Poetry Slam Champion a whopping total of four times. He has also appeared on Def Jam Poetry, SlamNation, and Slam Planet. These days, Mali is solely dedicated to his family (his wife and son) as well as his spoken word and voiceover career. Mali travels the country for performances, workshops, and narrations.
Poem 1: "What Teachers Make"
In Taylor Mali’s poem What Teacher’s Make, Mali touches on society’s poor portrayal of teachers. He presents the poem as dialogue between a lawyer and himself at a dinner party in front of other dinner guests. The lawyer questions what Mali makes in terms of salary to which Mali replies “I make kids work harder than they ever thought they could…” Mali uses this ironic play-on-words (‘I make”) in the poem repetitively to prove that teachers make much more than a salary; they make things happen. Mali’s tone throughout is headstrong, unwavering, and witty. This allows for an inspiring and empowering mood. Mali also uses powerful imagery such as “I make parents tremble in fear…” and figurative language such as, “I decided to bit my tongue instead of his.” He also uses internal rhyme such as “less” and “best” as well as end rhyme in the last two lines of the poem, “true” and “you,” to leave the audience hypothetically thinking.
What is special about this poem is that the spoken form of the piece is so much more powerful than what is read on the simple page. Mali uses various hand motions to enforce his points, as well as mouthing the word “silence” to emphasize his powerful role as a teacher. Mali also uses deep pathos in order to convey ethos for teachers all around the world. For example, Mali speaks about one of his students who stood up to a bully, and it was “the noblest act of courage” he had ever seen. This feature in the poem tugs at the heartstrings of the listeners and dares them to truly think about what teachers “make” when it comes to their profession. In that aspect, I believe Mali hit the nail on the head with the point he was trying to make. Teachers do more than just teach, they make more than just a salary, and they aren’t in the position they are in because they aren’t capable. They are way more than capable—they matter, and they make a difference.
Poem 2: "Totally like whatever, you know?"
In Taylor Mali’s poem Totally like whatever, you know?, Mali uses comedy to address the underlying seriousness of this generation’s lack of leadership and self-assurance. In the poem, Mali leads the audience to laughter by imitating how our culture tends to speak now a days with fillers such as “like,” and “you know.” Ironically enough, he places a cluster of these words together in the title to get his point across. Mali uses this questioning tone and repetitiveness of useless words to point out how outrageous our generation has become when it comes to simple communication—so outrageous, it is comical. Based on Mali’s poem, our generation has become followers rather than leaders, communicate as if we are completely inarticulate, and act as if we have a lower self-assurance in ourselves. Mali even uses the line, “we’ve just gotten to the point where it’s just like…/whatever!” to highlight that society cannot even express itself in just plain, simple words. It almost exhausts us.
After all this mockery, there is a huge shift in the poem where the tone changes from questioning to assertive. There is even parallelism for emphasis: “I entreat you, I implore you, I exhort you/ I challenge you…” Mali is demanding now and challenges his audience, rather than simply ask them to change. There is no longer question or uncertainty; there is now authority and empowerment. This is how Mali believes society ought to be. He even continues to point out how our generation ironically looks to the “wisdom of the bumper sticker,” rather than to reliable outlets such as books and primary sources. The irony in this poem is used throughout, yet it conveys to the audience exactly what Mali wanted to depict. By embracing the style in which Mali hates, he thus makes his audience think about how ridiculous our generation has become when it comes to simple communication. He calls for change.
ENGL4302 Spoken Word Poetry & Pedagogy at LSU