Monday, April 04, 2005

Why "Say Something Wonderful"?

Well, I almost called this blog “The Long Schoolroom,” not so much after the line from Yeats (“I walk through the long schoolroom questioning,” from "Among School Children") as after the book of essays by Allen Grossman, a poet whose work I don’t know all that well, but whose passion and talents as a teacher of poetry, first at Brandeis and then at Johns Hopkins University, are legendary.

In the end, though, "The Long Schoolroom" sounded just a smidgen too serious--too grim and forbidding a classroom to visit--for anything written by a far-from-legendary guy like me. (As I’ve quipped on Mark Scroggins’ lovely blog Culture Industry, I’d rather read a stack of romance novels than a page of Adorno, and I have the bedside table to prove it.) Grossman's “Lessons in the Bitter Logic of the Poetic Principle” seemed the wrong curriculum to invoke, somehow. Instead, I’ve borrowed the phrase “say something wonderful” from an early poem by Edward Hirsch. He, too, gets a little high-church for my tastes, nowadays, but he wowed me when I was a 10th grader and first encountered his work. In fact, I think For the Sleepwalkers was the first book by a living poet I ever purchased.

“Tonight I want to say something wonderful / for the sleepwalkers,” the title poem begins,

who have so much faith
in their legs, so much faith in the invisible

arrow carved into the carpet, the worn path
that leads to the stairs instead of the window,
the gaping doorway instead of the seamless mirror.

That the impulse to “say something wonderful” spurs poets to write is obvious, perhaps. For me, though, it lies at the heart of reading poetry as well. Faced with those moments when love or death, joy or catastrophe, a really good burger or a hit-and-run flirtation shakes up our lives, we look for words that are up to the occasion: words that instill the cockiness, charm, or “faith in the invisible” that only shaped and patterned language can supply. Examples abound, from the oft-cited flurry of poems quoted and e-mailed after September 11th to those moments in the novels of Jennifer Crusie (plug, plug) when the male lead mutters a scrap of Donne or Roethke, kindling our startled heroine’s interest.

To bring this faith in poetry to students, however—and here comes the part where even I get serious—we teachers can’t be “sleepwalkers” ourselves, unable to articulate just how we can tell “seamless mirror” from open door. Nor can we afford to dismiss such questions as “what does this poem mean?” or “why is your interpretation any better than mine?” Like physics or chemistry instructors, that is to say, we must be able to explain both results and method, to show our students why certain questions make a poem more instructive or delightful, while others set blinders on the reader’s eyes. We need an informed and confident sense of how to introduce poetry to our students—its nature, its pleasures, its difficulties—and of how to read a poem closely without (as Billy Collins infamously warns) “beating it with a hose / to find out what it really means.” Above all, I guess, we owe it to our students to model how reading—reading closely, reading aloud, reading in bed—can bring poems to life, in every sense of that fine phrase.

More about which—and about much else—in my next posting. Stay tuned.


Tony Tost said...

The Long Schoolroom is an amazing, dense book. I need to read it again. If you're unfamiliar w/ Grossman's poetry, my own humble suggestion is to start with How to Do Things With Tears and then move to Ether Dome, which is a healthy selected. Have you read his interview book with that one guy, Halliday? The interviews are pretty good, Grossman is always interesting, tho Halliday grates, but the real goldmine is Grossman's theory work that closes the book. I don't have it on me or else I could give an actual title. Grrr.

chandella said...

hello eric i have been recieving mails for poetry teaching it so good to know that u have started this as well, u are so right in poetry 2+2 are not always 4 they can be 5 as well and this is the charm of literature the learning and appreciation doesnt stop .

E. M. Selinger said...

Thanks for the tips, Tony! I'll get to reading, and post what I find out.


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