Monday, April 11, 2005

Books to Know: A Surge of Language

If you teach poetry, you owe it to yourself (and your students) to know A Surge of Language: Teaching Poetry Day by Day, by Baron Wormser and David Cappella. Wormser is Poet Laureate of Maine, and teaches workshops on teaching poetry (among other things) at the Frost Place in New Hampshire; Cappella, also a poet, currently teaches at Central Connecticut State, but he has apparently taught at everything from the middle school level on up. Their book isn't a textbook; rather, it's the fictional journal of a 7th-12th grade English teacher who has put poetry--both reading and writing it--at the center of his curriculum. I read the book this fall, and keep returning to its mix of poems, close readings, sample assignments, and meditations on the how and what and why of teaching poetry.

"When I ask questions," their "Mr. P" muses in the September 12 entry,
I ask questions about the poem's art. Because any given poem has so many facets, I find that I never really repeat a question. I also find that I don't have to ask questions that put the student on the spot by making presuppositions and creating anxiety. This means I never ask what a line or a poem means nor do I ask what the students think the poet had in mind. If you talk about art, meaning will take care of itself because art creates meaning. To talk about what the poet had in mind is to practice mind reading. I am interested in the text not in hypotheses about the poet's mind.
("Gimme that Old Time New Critical Religion!" part of me wants to shout--or say "Amen." But wait, it goes on, gets nicely practical.)

Poems are not hierarchical--every word matters. That means the doors into a poem are as numerous as the words in the poem. Accordingly my first question to the class will usually be about word choice. As my students say, "When we talk about poems, we talk about language." In the case of [the poem for that day], this means I might ask what word is most suprising to my students or what word doesn't seem to belong or what word doesn't make sense to them or what word moves them the most. What I want is for my students to respond to the words in the poem as words. Poetry affords me the opportunity to focus on the lives of the words.
This is less systematic than my "divide and ponder" approach, but that's also a strength. Systems feel less intimate, somehow, than one many students like to be with a text; they appeal to students who think of themselves as "not poetry types," but can turn off some of their more enthusiastic colleagues. (I think of these, Judaically, as the Mitnagim and Hasidim of any given classroom--I'd call them Apollonian and Dionysian, but such terms are Greek to me.)

Here's a sweet little piece of Victorian marriage advice that opens up nicely to Mr. P's questions, "Constancy Rewarded," by Coventry Patmore. It's from Canto XI, , Book II, of The Angel in the House, and I found it online at the indispensible Victorian Web:

I vow'd unvarying faith, and she,
To whom in full I pay that vow,
Rewards me with variety
Which men who change can never know.

When I ask my students to think about this as art, rather than as advice, it doesn't take long before someone notices the lovely play in it between monosyllables and polysyllables, which is to say between sameness ("To whom in full I pay that vow"--how dull and dutiful monogamy must be!) and variety. There are two words with four syllables, which are thus paired, and which share a common root--"unvarying" and "variety," natch--and two with two syllables--"rewards" and "never"--which also ask to be paired and compared. Someone else might pick up on the monetary language ("pay" and "change") and the differences between what it means to "vary" and to "change," and where "reward" comes from in discourse and in etymology. Some, with better ears, pick up on the rhythmic twist of "unvarying" (which threatens to vary the iambic tetrameter, unless you elide "un-va-ry-ying" into "un-var-ying") or on the way Patmore parcels out 8 syllables in lines of 8, 4, and 7 words in the last three lines.

It's the sort of poem that students rarely read these days, I find--too pat, too moralizing, or at least moralizing along the wrong lines--yet it turns out to be a real playground for the mind. (Which, ahem, may be part of Patmore's point.)

More soon,

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