Friday, May 27, 2005

Teaching Tips: Ekphrastic Poetry Writing

An interesting set of emails fluttered through the WOMPO women poet’s listserv last week, all about ekphrastic poetry—that is, poetry based on works of visual art. Here are a few of the suggestions that were offered, which seem apt for classes and workshops at just about any level!

  1. Take your workshop to a museum and write there.
  2. Make a collection of art on postcards, and have each student choose three pictures they like and one they don't. Include something from each card in their poem (You can get art postcards at any museum--usually inexpensively. Also Dover has many you can order online.)
  3. Hand a random art postcard to each student and have them begin "In the _________I am the _________": e.g., “In Picasso's "La Joie de Vivre" I am the double pipe."
  4. Create a dream poem by having students begin to write something easy like "I want to tell you . . . " or "Outside the window . . "Ask them to write non-stop. Give each one a postcard to start with and then every 60 seconds give them another for 6-10 minutes. They are to incorporate something from each card as they receive it.
  5. Use the same idea with a "journey motif"--e.g. Going to Lvov, the ______ etc. (details from the postcard).
  6. If you don't want to spend a lot of money on postcards, try these free sources: art galleries use them for advertisements; libraries throw away art magazines. (Magazine pictures work just as well--but are harder to store, handle); the internet--goggle Picasso. for example. Then print out images and paintings from the Web onto postcard paper and cut them to size. Images come from scrolling through online museums, art stores online, etc--the National Gallery has a great online (check out their Online Tours for some "backstory", the Rothko one is terrific).
  7. Take in a pile of art books, have students look until they find something that attracts (or repels) them--then begin writing, beginning with a detail.
  8. Ask your writers to imagine the story tucked into or behind the artwork. I get tired of ekphrastic poetry that simply re-iterates the artwork like a shopping list! Instead ask students to write not only what is in a picture but what is not or what is beyond.
  9. Use models of ephrastic verse--there are so many! Comparing how two poets handle the same artwork, like Buregel's "Fall of Icarus"--Auden's MUS√ČE DES BEAUX ARTS, and WCWilliams's "Landscape with the Fall of Icrarus" can be interesting too.... have fun!
  10. Rennie McQuilkin has a brand new book, Private Collection, which might be just perfect for your needs. Description on Antrim House website: "This volume contains poems written over a period of forty years in response to works of art ranging from known masterpieces to crayon drawings, graffiti and household objects. The book contains 30 pages of notes presenting topics for writing and discussion as well as personal notations and ways of gaining internet access to artworks on which the poems are based." For more information or to order see Antrim House website.
  11. Or consider Make-Believes: Verses and Visions, poems by W.D. Snodgrass and paintings by DeLoss McGraw (Eatonbrook Editions, 2004). These two have been working together a long time. There's a statement by McGraw on their collaborations -- particularly the Death of Cock Robin poems and paintings -- in Steven Haven's collection, The Poetry of W.D. Snodgrass. Favorite poem/painting title: "W.D. Meets Mr. Evil While Removing the Record of Bartok and Replacing It with a Recent Recording by the Everly Brothers in Order to Create a Mood Conducive to Searching for Cock Robin."
  12. Also, you might check out this spot:, where a fellow named David Wright has assembled a bunch of images and poems for his creative writing class, plus definitions and references and good links -- in particular one to a Miss Calamity Jane blog that opines on the differences between male and female ekphrastic projects. Worth a snoop.
  13. If you do a whole course, you can have your writing students pair up with art students and have each do an ekphrasis on one another's work. The artists create work based on poems and the poets created poems based on artworks. (This reminds me--Eric--of Sam Reed's "We Wear the Mask" project, which I talked about a few weeks ago.)
I'll post more resources on ekphrasis as they come to me--and of course, feel free to post them here as comments, too!

Monday, May 23, 2005

William Carlos Williams: Poems about Pictures

Some first-rate posts going up at my friend Mark's blog Culture Industry about William Carlos Williams! I'm particularly interested in his comments on poems that Williams writes in response to newspaper photographs: political pictures, mostly, of refugees, soldiers' coffins coming home, etc. Given the news these days, one could certainly put together lesson plans on ekphrastic poetry (that is, poems based on works of art) that would include such pictures as starting points, and these Williams poems could serve as models. Check them out!

Teaching Tips: Keats tips, anyone?

A fun pair of comments to my last couple of posts from Kerry: one about Gerald Stern, about whom I'll post something in a bit (either here or at A Big Jewish Blog); the other about Keats, to wit:
As for that Keats poem, I am sure that there is something wrong with me that I don't just love Keats - I really know I am kind of supposed to - but that last one ["This Living Hand"] is the poem of his that does get inside me and move around. I think of it as some kind of perfect version of modern poetry...? and wonder what he could have done had he been allowed to live.
I know just what you mean about Keats, Kerry. In fact, I think I was about 30 before I really loved any Keats poem, and well into my 30s before I taught one effectively. I'm not sure why, other than my lingering adolescent resistance to the lushness of his diction--or maybe just to the expectation that I should love him!

The only two Keats poems I've ever felt comfortable and confident teaching are "This Living Hand," which I pitch as a vampire poem (to my students' dismay, sometimes), and "To Autumn," which I like to teach in the context of other seasonal poems, looking at the various ways various poets treat each season in turn. (I like to pair it with "That time of year thou mayst in me behold," which trots out more typical topoi for autumn.) I focus on time in "To Autumn": the way Keats holds the usual equation of autumn-as-season-before-death at bay by suspending his syntax with participles and making autumn sound like summer (in stanza 1), by suspending a variety of actions and deploying spondees (in stanza 2); and so on. Lots of repetition and variation to talk about, too, stanza to stanza.

Help me, somebody! Any tips on teaching Keats, from anyone who really loves him?

Friday, May 20, 2005

"Gurlesque" Poetry (Arielle Greenberg)

A year or so ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Arielle Greenberg, a wonderful younger poet (younger than I am, anyway) whom I'd first encountered as a witty and curious contributor to "WOM-PO," the indispensible listserv of and about women poets. “Hi to all the Jewish wom-pos (and others who know about folk songs),” she asked once: “I am trying to remember a song we learned in yeshiva when I was a kid--it has many verses and the chorus or final verse is about a calf being led off to slaughter…in a wagon or cart? It had a big impact on me as a kid and I can't remember how it went but I want to use it in a poem...Yours in matza ball soup, Arielle.” The fizzy-but-heimish cocktail of discourse, tone, and reference in this email—the in-group humor, hint of horror, and chipper performative wink—was a fitting aperitif for Greenberg’s work as a poet, both in her first book, Given, and in her forthcoming My Kafka Century, due out from Action Books.

To read Greenberg is to encounter a poetry best described, perhaps, by a critical term the poet coined a couple of years ago. Part burlesque, part carnivalesque, part post-punk riot grrrl, they are “gurlesque.” “In Gurlesque poems,” Greenberg writes, “the words luxuriate: they roll around in the sensual while avoiding the sharpness of overt messages, preferring the curve of sly mockery to theory or revelation. Gurlesque poets are unafraid of making poems that seem silly, romantic or cute; rather, they revel in cuteness, and use it to subversive ends, complicating the relationship between feminism and femininity. Gurlesque poems own their sexuality, wear it proudly, are thoroughly enmeshed in the visceral experiences of gender; these poems are non-linear but highly conversational, lush and campy, full of pop culture detritus, and ultimately very powerful.”

Here's a poem from her forthcoming book, which was published on-line recently by Octopus magazine. Its title, "Heenayni," is transliterated Hebrew, and means "Here I am":


Here I am, your fondest lugnut,
a shifting kitty towards the star of you
floating across a constellation of tattoo,
the firmament. I am firmly. I am yours.
Heenayni, Here I Am. Here I am, God.
I love you. I swear I’m not hiding.
I don’t know where that palm frond came from.
I’m all yours.
Your drifting sheep-herder. Your pile of wool.
I know, I know. I know what you’re thinking.
I got a bit caught up in the fratricide.
But I felt like I was glowing barium I was so findable,
his blood an x-ray through my blood.
He bloodied my indignant before he fell,
but I held on to the squint.
I went South. I didn’t forward the mail.
But I was just waiting for my next instruction.
I thought that last arson was my sign.
So I stayed in Arizona. I wasn’t hiding.
I was listed. I was in Tempe.
I was washing dishes.
Maybe you couldn’t find me for the suds:
it was all kind of squeaky for awhile there.
But I’ve returned, your mistrial,
your yellow morning cake.
Heenayni. As you know, I was never gone.
Although I think Greenberg is just putting some serious torque on "indignant" there, to make it a noun, it's just possible there's a noun missing after it--I won't know until I hear from her (Hi, Arielle!) or see the poem in print. In the mean time, does it matter? The mix of tones and dictions in this is just dizzying, luxurious, delicious. (As is, come to think of it, the cocktail called Yellow Cake--though not, I suspect, the nuclear material, purified, solid U3O8, of the same name!)

A poet to know, folks.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Of Novels, Poets, and Vampires

A couple of quick things here. First, I've changed the settings on this blog to make it easier for you to email my posts to friends or fellow teachers, and also for you to comment, even without having your own Blogger account. I'd LOVE to hear from any of you reading this, even (maybe especially) to learn if I'm posting anything useful, and if not, what else I could do. (Of course, if I'm not posting anything useful, you're probably not reading anymore. Hmmm...)

Second, I should mention that I've started another blog for my thoughts specifically about Jewish poetry and poetics, with an eye to developing a "Jewish Poetry Curriculum" for K-12 teachers in supplementary schools, and maybe day schools, too. It's called "A Big Jewish Blog"; check it out if you're interested, and spread the word. (Can I still use that phrase?)

Now to the fun stuff--in this case, poets and vampires. I have a shelf full of novels about poets that I've been meaning to read, and yesterday--taking a little "so we'll go no more a-roving" break from my romance novel binge--I just finished reading Tom Holland's novel Lord of the Dead, in which Lord Byron, poet and vampire, tells his story.

I don't really know the vampire fiction genre, Anne Rice, et. al., and have only read a handful of vampire stories in the "paranormal erotic-romance" subgenre (I liked Emma Holly's "Night Owl" and Angela Knight's "Seduction's Gift," in Hot Blooded, though), so I can't say much about this book from that perspective. What I liked about it was the implicit link between the genre of historical-novel-about-a-poet and the whole "the blood is the life" motif, in which the dead live on by eating blood. Near the start of the novel, for example, Greek villagers are trying to trap a vampire by killing a goat and pouring out its blood as bait, and Byron, narrating, equates this with the blood sacrifice that opens a path to the dead in the Odyssey, and hence in the Aeneid (am I right?), and of course in Canto 1:
Dark blood flowed in the fosse,
Souls out of Erebus, cadaverous dead, of brides
Of youths and of the old who had borne much;
Souls stained with recent tears, girls tender,
Men many, mauled with bronze lance heads,
Battle spoil, bearing yet dreory arms,
These many crowded about me; with shouting,
Pallor upon me, cried to my men for more beasts;
Slaughtered the herds, sheep slain of bronze;
Poured ointment, cried to the gods,
To Pluto the strong, and praised Proserpine;
Unsheathed the narrow sword,
I sat to keep off the impetuous impotent dead....
Although, of course, the dead in this book are not exactly impotent. Or dead.

Of course, what I would want a book like this to do is send me back to Byron, Shelley, et. al., hungry to read them--and it doesn't quite do that as well as I would like it to. (The mention of Don Juan in Holland's book did make me want to go reread that long poem, but more for escape, in exasperation, than because I thirsted for it.) It did send me back, though, to reread and re-memorize my favorite vampire poem--at least, I read it that way--, "This Living Hand," by Keats, where the dead poet seduces me, the living reader, into giving my life for him:

This living hand, now warm and capable

Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold

And in the icy silence of the tomb,

So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights

That thou wouldst wish thine own heart dry of blood

So in my veins red life might stream again,

And thou be conscience-calmed—see here it is

I hold it towards you.

Whew! Love it. Love it. Love to say it, be the speaker, love to hear myself say it, and be the audience. Yum.

So: now that I have the new comments and email set up, any thoughts on other novels-about-poets I should read? I'll post a list, when I have enough to make it worth your while.

(P.S. Not to toot my own horn, but if you're interested in Muriel Rukeyser, I have a LONG piece on her in the latest Parnassus, "Rukeyser Without Commitment." Enjoy.)

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Characters at Corey's

A long, thoughtful post today over at Josh Corey's blog about how readers choose the books of poetry they buy, including our old friend, the once-extinct Ivory-Billed Common Reader. I was tickled to see him mention the "pleasure of character" I mentioned some posts ago, and thrilled to see him follow that mention with this very useful paragraph:
If I choose a Language or post-Language book, I want to be spoken to as a socially conscious intellectual; if I choose a New York School-ish book, I want to feel urbane, savvy about pop culture, and emotionally open. If poetry can be popular in the sense that it can speak to a larger chunk of the subculture of readers than the usual 500 - 1,000 people who recognize its category, it will be a poetry that addresses a Beloved that people want to be. I believe the readers of Collins and Oliver and Olds are looking for the experience of Belovedness: they read these very simple and accessible poems for the aura they simulate by seeming to address you in your privacy as a person you'd like to be: wry and self-deprecating, at one with nature, or filled with operatic griefs and exaltations. Charles Bukowski is another good example: his genuine popularity comes from his readers' feeling they are intimate with the gritty authenticity of a down-and-out street rebel in touch with his politically incorrect desires. Now as a D&D fan I'd be the last one to indict these writers for the pleasures of character they offer: I think offering people contact with parts of themselves not often or easily expressed is one of the most valuable, maybe THE most valuable, services writing can offer. But I think their language is lazy and the characters they generate have become worn and two-dimensional through constant repetition: it's mass-produced authenticity. A more positive example would be someone like Robert Creeley; I suspect that he owed much of his success and popularity (For Love was a bestseller in its time) to the complex pleasures of character that derive from reading his deceptively simple langauge. In fact, I would say he's a poet whose innovations and originality largely depend upon his use of the ethical axis. The one living poet I can think of who's successful at ethical address who is also a growing and attentive artist is Anne Carson: a very considerable audience has discovered the pleasures of being intimate with her erudite, witty, yet humble and at times swooningly romantic persona. It's true she still risks commodification (I saw an episode of Showtime's The L Word in which a rather silly writer character talks about how much Carson's work means to her), but as long as she keeps moving artistically and seeks to satisfy not her audience directly but the shapes of the words in her head, she'll remain a vital and interesting poet. Anne Carson is not a bad poet "to be," so to speak.
This makes sense to me--and not just because it uses the word "swooningly." (You know I'm a sucker for swooning.) Whether "ethical" is the right word, on the other hand, I don't know. But it's time for me to pick up the kids, so I'll mull that one over as I walk them home from school.

Sing Hey, the Alice Notley and the Tar

Hats off to Norman Finkelstein for realizing that Alice Notley's "Margaret and Dusty" (posted last week) is a rewriting of the Mother Goose rhyme "Dusty Miller," to wit:
Margaret wrote a letter,
Sealed it with her finger,
Threw it in the dam
For the dusty miller.
Dusty was his coat,
Dusty was the siller,
Dusty was the kiss
I'd from the dusty miller.
If I had my pockets
Full of gold and siller,
I would give it all
To my dusty miller.
There seems to be a Robert Burns poem that rewrites this as well:
Hey, the Dusty Miller

Hey, the dusty Miller,
And his dusty coat,
He will win a shilling,
Or he spend a groat:
Dusty was the coat,
Dusty was the colour,
Dusty was the kiss
That I gat frae the Miller.

Hey, the dusty Miller,
And his dusty sack;
Leeze me on the calling
Fills the dusty peck:
Fills the dusty peck,
Brings the dusty siller;
I wad gie my coatie
For the dusty Miller.
I don't know what to do with this new knowledge yet, but when I teach the poem next, I'm sure it will come in handy. In the mean time, I'm off for a dram o' the finest.

Who Is Jack Gilbert?

I've been meaning to remark on the essay a few days ago in Slate on the poet Jack Gilbert. Who is Jack Gilbert, you ask? Me too. I had read a handful of Gilbert poems over the years, and been haunted by a few, but I've never known anything about him, biographically speaking, or felt a real drive to find out. I can't say the piece did much to spark my interest in him as a man--that is, there's no biographical information in it that really excites me, makes me want to read the poems to find out what that guy wrote (as there might be with, say, Byron or Ginsberg or Ovid)--but when I went back to my files, I found this poem, which I copied out shortly after 9/11. It still leaves me stunned:


Imagine if suffering were real.
Imagine if those old people were afraid of death.
What if the midget or the girl with one arm
really felt pain? Imagine how impossible it would be
to live if some people were
alone and afraid all their lives.

Maybe I'm wrong about the need to "hitch" poetry to something else. Damn. Ain't that a Poem to Know?

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Who Do You Love?

As I wrote that last post about "impure criticism"--maybe "impure reading habits" would be a better name?--I kept hearing a heavily accented voice in my head asking the questions "What do you hate, and who do you love?" Whose voice was it? A minute later, I had it! It was the voice of the wonderful Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali, whom I had the pleasure of meeting and hosting here in Chicago a couple of years ago. The poem with those questions is "Meeting at an Airport," which I found in Arabic and in a lovely translation by Peter Cole, Yahya Hijazi, and Gabriel Levin at the invaluable Poetry International website; Taha's work is available in English (the wonderful collection Never Mind) thanks to the invaluable work of Ibis Editions--a publisher you should know!

You asked me once,
on our way back
from the midmorning
trip to the spring:
"What do you hate,
and who do you love?"

And I answered,
from behind the eyelashes
of my surprise,
my blood rushing
like the shadow
cast by a cloud of starlings:
"I hate departure...
I love the spring
and the path to the spring,
and I worship the middle
hours of morning."
And you laughed...
and the almond tree blossomed
and the thicket grew loud with nightingales.

...A question
now four decades old:
I salute that question’s answer;
and an answer,
as old as your departure;
I salute that answer’s question...

...And today,
it’s preposterous,
here we are at a friendly airport
by the slimmest of chances,
and we meet.
Ah, Lord!
we meet.
And here you are
it’s absolutely preposterous—
I recognized you
but you didn’t recognize me.
"Is it you?!"
But you wouldn’t believe it.
And suddenly
you burst out and asked:
"If you’re really you,
What do you hate
and who do you love?!"

And I answered—
my blood
fleeing the hall,
rushing in me
like the shadow
cast by a cloud of starlings:
"I hate departure,
and I love the spring,
and the path to the spring,
and I worship the middle
hours of morning."

And you wept,
and flowers bowed their heads,
and doves in the silk of their sorrow stumbled.

A poet to know.

On Teaching and "Impure Criticism"

One of the teachers in my upcoming NEH seminar "Say Something Wonderful: Teaching the Pleasures of Poetry," writes me to describe an interesting interdisciplinary activity with his sixth grade students.

In conjunction with reading Paul L. Dunbar's poem "We Wear the Mask," the kids worked on a mask and fabric design project with The Fabric and Workshop Museum in Philadelphia; in it, an artist visited the class to help students design masks, which they then transferred onto fabric. Students then took a the line "We wear the mask ..." and composed their own poems on the theme of wearing masks. The fabric will be exhibited, and the poems presented, at a multicultural fair in the city--and the poems will also be published in a class book, with the mask designs for illustrations.

What I love about this isn't simply the richness and variety of the projects involved: the way they link not only two or three arts (close reading, creative writing, and design), but two worlds, or maybe three (school and the city and the museum). It's also the underlying instinct that poetry matters most, comes most alive, when it's actively hitched to something else. That "something" can be a story, like literary history, or a set of personalities, like the Beats, or a cultural superstructure, like patriotism or gender or ethnic identity or religious tradition, or (as in this case) another art. How rarely I read poems entirely on their own--and yet, alas, how frequently I teach poems without the very "hooks" that actually hold me to them in my own life!

Neruda wrote a famous essay about the need for an "impure poetry." Maybe we need to own up to our private practice of an "impure criticism," too, in order to make our teaching really sing.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Pleasures of Rhythm, Chapter 2

Back to La Vendler (Poems, Poets, Poetry, chapter 3) on pleasures, specifically, the pleasures of rhythm!

"The first and most elementary pleasure in all poetry is rhythm," sayeth the Preacher. Hmmm... Is that right? It may be--that is, when my 6 year old recites poetry, whatever its form, her voice invariably stylizes what she's saying in order to draw out its rhythms, regular or not. Molly Peacock says somewhere that the line in poetry is like a frame placed around a set of words so that you can actually listen to them, attending to their sounds, although she includes assonance, consonance, rhyme in that close listening. When we listen, we start to notice little repetitions, and those repetitions--whether small scale and local, like the liilting, almost Irish four-syllable TUM ti-ti TUM that marks the start of the Howe I posted yesterday ("we that were wood / when that a wide wood was"), or large scale and pervasive, like an actual meter--give a certain immediate pleasure. We can then begin to connect them to thematic issues or literary history or local meanings which they "act out," and thus get a certain gratification from them, too.

Maybe Vendler should have said that the first and most elementary pleasure in all poetry is sound, and then moved on to focus on rhythm as part of that broader category? That would jibe with Zukofsky's claim that the test of poetry is the range of pleasure it affords as sight, sound, and intellection, and with my own sense that the poet's first duty is to get the thing to sound right. If it doesn't, it ain't likely to please--or to be much of a poem--but if it does, you can get away with just about anything! I think here of poems like Auden's "This Lunar Beauty," which dance away from paraphrasable meaning but sound so good I go back to them, over and over again, or of this one, by Alice Notley, the title poem from her wonderful book Margaret & Dusty, which I've doted on for years for its rhythm's sake:
Margaret and Dusty

Margaret wrote a letter
sealed it with her finger
put it in her pocket
for the Dusty Baker

Dusty was his hat
Dusty was his moustache
Dusty was Margaret's pocket
They both got all dusty

If I had a flower
If I had a trinket of gold
& silver & lapis
If I had a medal & a trophy
& a fullup sticker album
I'd rather be all dusty
Like those two friends of mine.
Just listen to how this poem shifts rhythmic gears from the innocent jump-rope rhythms of the first stanza into the sexy Western legato of "They both got all [pause] dusty," and from there into the pre-adolescent gush of that last stanza. There we have some of the more complex pleasures (or are they "gratifications"?) of rhythm in action. Sounds good to me.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Quotes to Know: Allen Grossman

"Poems should have an empowering strangeness about them which summons its audience rather than receives its audience." The Sighted Singer, 122.

Here's a poem with that sort of strangeness, or part of one: the prefatory poem to Susan Howe's Pythagorean Silence:
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxwe that were wood
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxwhen that a wide wood was

In a physical Universe playing with


Bark be my limbs my hair be leaf

Bride be my bow my lyre my quiver
At which you have to turn the page, and start the poem, summoned. Yum!

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Pleasures (and Gratifications) of Rhythm

In Helen Vendler's very useful textbook, Poems, Poets, Poetry, I find a chapter on "Poems as Pleasure." It's a rather dry chapter, actually--schematic, rather than chipper or indulgent--but the scheme it proposes interests me, and I want to play off it for a post or two, adding notes as they come to mind. These will be short posts, slipped in between other work, so you'll forgive me I hope for the choppiness of the format; on the other hand, I hope you'll take the opportunity to sound off in response!

Vendler starts from the general premise that "all artworks appeal to our (apparently inborn) love of patterning," with the sensible proviso that pattern and rhythm are "very closely connected": ways to speak of the same basic phenomenon. "Babies learn by patterned repetition, and the pleasure of learning and recognizing new and old patterns is probably the source of our deepest pleasure in art," she writes. After all, "most of the true and wise things said in artworks have also been said (in less-pattered and unrhythmic ways) in philosophy and letters and newspaper editorials and conversation, where they may also strike us as true and wise, but not as art. " When you find more patterning than is actually needed to get the meaning
across, you're in the world of art, whether visual or musical or literary.

Sounds good to me. Any quarrels from you so far?

Monday, May 09, 2005

A Poem that Pleases

Well, I can't resist: here's a poem that pleases me quite a bit, which I've plucked from Emily Lloyd's Poesy Galore. It's by Emily herself (hats off!); if you check the comments to the original posting, called "Burn" (April 28, 2005), you can find a shorter version of it, simmered down to sonnet length, if you prefer.
Jane Eyre, Unbanned
--upon hearing of a bill to ban books with gay characters in Alabama libraries

You think of Mr. Rochester, mad wives
in attics, Jane herself, as plain as flan.
You don't remember Helen Burns, Jane's friend

from school. Reader, I married her. I pressed
my eighth-grade self between those pages like
a flower, left for later hands. Helen.

"I like to have you near me," she would cough,
romantically consumptive, after Jane
snuck to her sick-bed. "Are you warm, darling?"

We'll always find ourselves inside the book,
no matter what the book, no matter how
little we're given. I was twelve; gay meant

nothing to me. I only knew I'd go
to Lowood Institution, rise at dawn,
bare knuckles to the switch, choke down the gruel,

pray to the bell, if this meant I could hold
another girl all night, if I could clasp--
this even if she died there while I slept,
this even if I died there in my sleep.
>Isn't that just to swoon for? Even if I don't teach Jane Eyre (or any other pre-20th-c. romance) in my upcoming class, for reasons irrelevant here, I'll hang on to this for the next time I do--and I hope all you teachers out there will, too!

Pleasure vs. Gratification

My post last week about "accepting poetry" and the "pleasures of character" prompted a number of kind responses, including a thoughtful comment from Norman Finkestein about reading Michael Palmer, posted here at SSW, and a longish post over at Mark Scroggins' blog, "Culture Industry," about the mysteries of taste. "There are certain reading experiences that can’t be accomodated to any definition of pleasure I recognize – Hegel, for instance, or any sociology textbook," Mark writes, amid other fine musings, "which is not to say some readers don’t take pleasure from the former."

Maybe we can clear things up a bit by drawing on a distinction from the world of "Positive Psychology," the field now being developed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Flow), Martin Seligman, and others: that is, the distinction between "pleasure" and "gratification."

Briefly, pleasure is immediate and requires no particular activity on our part of achieve it, while gratification is what we get when we get caught up in an activity that is challenging at a level that roughly matches our skills, so that we concentrate, lose ourselves in the activity, feel absorbed, caught up in a work well done. I gather this distinction is roughly equivalent to Aristotle's distinction between pleasures of sense and eudaimonia, or pleasures of activity, the pleasures of excellence [virtues, in the old sense] being exercised, although Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi derive it from actual research, rather than from rereading The Classics for enlightenment.

In any case, reading Hegel may not be a pleasure, but it could certainly bring gratification--and perhaps, once you know the Hegel well enough, it might bring a certain pleasure as well? (A sort of familiarity or reassurance, I mean, as familiar circuits of the brain are activated and we recall the gratification we once had. I get that reading Emerson sometimes.)

In terms of poetry, then, we might speak of
  • poems that please me, immediately;
  • poems that both please and gratify me;
  • poems that don't please me but can gratify me, because they match my skills and catch me up in the activity of reading them;
  • poems that no longer please me, or never get to, because I have grown habituated to the easy, immediate pleasures they offer;
  • poems that do not gratify me because I find them too easy, not challenging enough to let me lose myself in the activity of reading them;
  • poems that do not gratify me because I find them TOO challenging, which is to say that they demand skills I don't have, or don't care to exercise at the level they demand.
Are those all the options? Could a poem gratify me but not please me? Might these all be true, not just of whole poems, but of PARTS of poems, as well? Feedback, please!

Examples of all of these cases to follow--but for now, it's time to switch gears and get back to my serious research project of reading romance fiction. Just finished The Sheik (1919), by E. M. Hull, the original 2oth century "I Love Bad Boys" bestseller and source for the famous Valentino movie. (Anyone remember Helen Kane's "He's up on his Latin and Greek, / But in his sheikin', he's week"? What song WAS that from?) Today it's The Devil's Cub, by Georgette Heyer, inventor of the Regency Romance. It's a hard knock life.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

More on "Accepting Poetry"

That quote again, from Stevens:
"People never read poetry well until they have accepted it" (Letters, 436).
When I hit a poet whose work I can't abide--say, Barrett Watten, about whom I posted a sniffy little protest on my friend Mark's blog a week ago--I always try to remind myself that I'm probably not reading the work very well, not "accepting" it, as Stevens would say. This isn't a matter of reading skills or strategies, I think, so much as a question of identity. I don't want to be the reader of work like this: which means, I guess, that don't want to embody, even temporarily, the values and desires that underwrite it, and don't want to act the role, even briefly, of a member of its target demographic. (Remember "Garageland," by The Clash? I don't want to know about what the rich are doing. / I don't want to go to where, where the rich are going..." That sort of feeling, only it's not the rich I have in mind.)

Louis Zukofsky once grouped the pleasures of poetry into sight, sound, and intellection. I think a fourth one--pleasures of character--needs to join that list. There's a pleasure in the character I have to or get to inhabit when I "accept" a work and read it well--and, conversely, that character can keep me at a distance from any given poem even when its pleasures of sight or sound or intellection beckon me across the great divide.

(Let those pleasures be great enough and I'll cave and cross, of course--but that's a matter for another post.)

On Poetry and Artisanal Cheese

I've been out of action the last few days reading a manuscript about "defenses of poetry"--a good one, I'm pleased to say, and one chock full of useful quotes and passages from poets about their art. As I pack up the pages to ship them back to the publisher, I thought I'd post a couple of them up here, just to get them into circulation, and to muse on them a while.

One is from a letter that Wallace Stevens wrote to Hi Simons:
"People never read poetry well until they have accepted it" (Letters, 436).
I love that, not least because it sounds like an old-time moderate Baptist preacher speaking about reading scripture. I guess it jibes with my own experience as a teacher that the first hurdle facing most readers of poetry isn't the "difficulty" of the language, but the oddity (OK, oddness) of the projects of poetry tout court. Faced with poetry that has been framed as political rhetoric, they at least know something to do with it; they paraphrase its argument, argue about its effectiveness, and in general treat it like an editorial with linebreaks. When they can't do this, and can't figure out a way for the poem to have been "controversial" (a ready acolade), they sometimes get stuck, can't see the point, can't find the pleasure in whatever else it might be doing.

How we get our students to "accept" poetry is another topic altogether, and one I'll come back to, no doubt.

Here's a second quote, from Auden's "A Short Defense of Poetry":
The reading public has learned how to consume even the greatest fiction as if it were a can of soup. It has learned to misuse even the greatest music as background noise to study or conversation. Business executives can buy great paintings and hang them on the wall as status trophies. Tourists can 'do' the greatest architecture in an hour's guided tour. But poetry, thank God, the public still finds indigestible; it still must either be 'read,' that is to say, entered into by a personal encounter, or it must be left alone.
Why do I like this? I don't entirely agree with it, and part of me scrambles to find counter-examples of, say, Renaissance fat cats who used art as "status trophies," or jump to the defense of consumerism, which too easily gets a bad rap from the boys in the lit-oisie.

Maybe I like it because Auden himself was so blessedly level-headed about poetry's "frivolity," and about the vanity with which poets (and readers) pat themselves on the back for having done something dreadfully important in their reading and writing habits. Such vanity is pandemic now--you can catch it periodically from Ron Silliman's blog, especially when he's snubbing Billy Collins and the "School of Quietude," and even the endlessly likeable Josh Corey falls victim to it from time to time, as in his recent email exchange with Reginald Shepherd on the avant-garde. Maybe I like it because Auden would be a prime examble of "consumable" verse to so many hucksters of experiment; maybe because he manages to make poetry's "indigestibility" seem no more serious or radical a thing than the relative unpopularity of, say, stinky cheese. Yes! There we go. If you can't safely substitute "artisanal cheese" for "poetry" in your argument, you're falling prey to puffery. How's that for a credo, Bub?

And, finally, on a less literary note, this bit from George Santayana, Stevens' old teacher at Harvard:
Motives are always easy to assign, unless we wish to get at the real one. Those little hypocricies of daily life by which we elude the evils of self-analysis can blind us to our most respectable feelings. We make ourselves cheap to make ourselves intelligible.
That would be from "Philosophy on the Bleachers," 1894. Reminds me of Frederick Turner's quip that what used to be called the seven deadly sins are now widely considered the only believable motives for human behavior. Hmm... More on this anon, too.