Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Afterthought at Cocktail Hour

Dear Lena,

Reading poetry for the theme is like drinking really good whiskey (or rum, or arak, or wine, choose your poison, so long as its really quite good) to get drunk. Vulgar, and rather a waste of fine liquor. On the other hand, let's not kid ourselves. If the good stuff didn't pack a punch, would we ever actually drink it?


Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Teaching Tip: a Stephen Owen Assignment

I've been mulling over those quotes from Stephen Owen's marvellous book Mi-Lou: Poetry and the Labyrinth of Desire, trying to figure out what sort of practical classroom assignment they might suggest. What do you think of this?

“Led Astray,” or “Tempted,” or “Calgon, Take Me Away!”:
An Assignment out of Stephen Owen

According to Stephen Owen, poetry “may indeed lead the citizenry astray” (3). For this essay, I want you to choose a poem that tempts you to stray outside the boundaries of your real life, your family, your community, your nation, your time: a poem that conjures up “secret changes” in your heart.

Your job, in the essay, is threefold.
First, you need to put into words exactly what boundaries and great divides of difference lie between you or the community you belong to and the speaker of the poem. These might be differences of place or time, of race or religion, of class or gender, of values or desires—whatever makes reading this poem an encounter with what Owen calls “the unexpected, the other” (5).
Second, you need to figure out exactly what in the poem tempts you across those great divides. Poetry tries to “entice you with words…to lure you into becoming other…to make you want what you cannot have” says Owen (7). What about these particular words is so enticing, so alluring? To answer this question, you will need to attend to two sides of the poem: what it says, and how it gets said.
For “what it says,” think about the person you get to act out when you say the poem out loud. What about his or her values, ideas, emotions, abilities, and character do you find, well, intriguing—so fun to try on (if only for a while)?
For “how it gets said,” think about the style and the music of the poem: its phrasing, pacing, and diction; its assonance, consonance, alliteration, and rhyme; the ways that its words “rebel against the drudgery to which the community commonly puts them” (Owen, 3).
As you talk about each of these, try to spell out the different pleasures the poem offers, and why they appeal to you. (If you’re not sure why, that’s fine—but if you’re honest enough, with yourself and with me, you can probably explain most of the reasons!)
Finally, in your conclusion, I want you to reflect on what “secret changes in the heart” this poem works in you, or tries to. What does liking it, for the reasons you give, teach you about yourself, about the life you live, or about the community you live in?
Choose your poem wisely—and remember Owen’s warning!
Having been elsewhere in art, we are somehow no longer
the same persons that we were.

New Sappho Poem Discovered?

My mother, God bless her, alerted me last night to a little squib in the New York Times: a new poem by Sappho has been found and translated! Well, sort of. I tracked down their source, the Times Literary Supplement, and found this:
In 2004, Michael Gronewald and Robert Daniel announced the identification of a papyrus in the University of Cologne as part of a roll containing poems of Sappho. This text, recovered from Egyptian mummy cartonnage, is the earliest manuscript of her work so far known. It was copied early in the third century bc, not much more than 300 years after she wrote.

Parts of three of her poems are represented. As usual, all are in a fragmentary state. But the second one, it turned out, had been partially known since 1922 from an Oxyrhynchus papyrus of the third century ad, and by combining the two texts we now obtain an almost complete poem.

When we had only the Oxyrhynchus portion, we had only line-ends, preceded and followed by line-ends of other poems, and it was not clear where one poem ended and the next began; the left-hand margin, where this would have been signalled, was missing. That question is now settled. We have a poem of twelve lines, made up of six two-line stanzas. The last eight lines are virtually complete. The first four are still lacking two or three words each at their beginnings. But we can make out the sentence structure and restore the sense of what is lost, if not the exact words.

Here is the poem in my own restoration and translation. [The author is
Martin West.] The words in square brackets are supplied by conjecture.

"[You for] the fragrant-blossomed Muses’ lovely gifts
[be zealous,] girls, [and the] clear melodious lyre:

[but my once tender] body old age now
[has seized;] my hair’s turned [white] instead of dark;

my heart’s grown heavy, my knees will not support me,
that once on a time were fleet for the dance as fawns.

This state I oft bemoan; but what’s to do?
Not to grow old, being human, there’s no way.

Tithonus once, the tale was, rose-armed Dawn,
love-smitten, carried off to the world’s end,

handsome and young then, yet in time grey age
o’ertook him, husband of immortal wife."
I screech to a halt at those pseudo-Victorian couplets, like so many speedbumps interrupting a top-down celebratory drive. "Oft"? "O'ertook"? Ye gods.

Guy Davenport! Thou shouldst be living in this hour!

Monday, June 27, 2005

Teaching Tips: The Goldilocks Assignment

Amy Murphy, one of the teachers in this year's seminar, offers a wonderful "Goldilocks Assignment" to address the issue of "difficulty" in poetry.

"For this assignment," she tells her students, "you will read many poems, searching for one that’s too easy, one that’s too hard, and finally, one that’s just right!" (She uses the analogy of trying on clothes to find those that suit your personal style, make you look good, fit, etc.--I'm an idiot shopper, though, so I'll stick with chairs, perhaps.)

"Here are the procedures to follow," she continues (I've made a couple of changes here):

1. Begin by perusing the many poetry books I’ve brought into class. As you read through the poetry, consider what makes you like a certain poem and not like another one. Some considerations include:

inner form—i.e., how is the poem organized?
outer form: meter or free verse
subject matter
time period
[These could be multiplied, of course!]

Now find a poem that you find too easy, one that's too hard, and one that seems just right."

You then ask the students to write a reflective essay on the poems they have chosen, and why each was each.

A wonderful assignment--and one that could get students talking, in productive ways, about why a poem that seems too hard or too easy to one student feels just right to another, no?

Teaching the Pleasures of Poetry: Day 1

Well, we're off! The 2005 NEH Summer Seminar "Say Something Wonderful: Teaching the Pleasures of Poetry" kicked off today here at DePaul. Fifteen remarkable teachers, from thirteen states, chosen from an applicant pool that simply knocked my socks off--I could have filled the seminar many times over--sat down in a blessedly air-conditioned seminar room to discuss...

(the syllabus, please)

Prose (not all of which we got to):
  • Stephen Owen, “Introduction” to Mi-Lou: Poetry and the Labyrinth of Desire
  • Muriel Rukeyser, “The Resistances” (Chapter 1 of The Life of Poetry)
  • Barbara Packer, “Browsing Happiness”
  • Sven Birkerts, “The Poet in an Age of Distraction,” from The Electric Life
Poems (not all of which we got to):
  • Archilochos, "Some Saian mountaineer..." (trans. Guy Davenport)
  • Billy Collins, “Introduction to Poetry”
  • William Matthews, “A Major Work”
  • fantasy-novel poems by Susan Cooper and J.R.R. Tolkien
  • Yeats, “The Song of Wandering Aengus” and “When You are Old and Grey…”
  • Edward Hirsch, “For the Sleepwalkers”
  • Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sonnet 43 from Sonnets from the Portugese ("How do I love thee? Let me count the ways...")
  • Emma Lazarus, "The New Colossus"
  • Muriel Rukeyser, "St. Roach"
  • Alicia Ostriker, selections from The Volcano Sequence
  • Alice Notley, "Margaret & Dusty"
  • Frederick Turner, "On the Second Iraq War"
  • Psalm 137
Our discussion focused mostly on the first two prose pieces, by Owen and Rukeyser, with discussions of the Archilochos, Matthews, Hirsch, Browning, and Lazarus as our poems.

So: what did we say?

I started out by distinguishing a couple of contrasting emphases in how we frame poetry for our students: a "subversive to communal" horizontal axis (left to right, natch) and a "High Church to Secular" vertical axis. By "subversive," I mean an emphasis like the one we find in Owen's "Introduction," which starts with the infamous passage from the Republic where Plato dreams of throwning poets out of the ideal polis, and essentially concurs: yes, poetry “may indeed lead the citizenry astray” (3).

To Owen, poetry speaks, speaks to, and schools us in “a liberty of desire that renounces nothing and wants all.” “We tire of our virtuous restraints," it reminds us, "and we hunger” (3). Poetry stages a rebellion against community and community language-us; poems are, says the critic, “words made to rebel against the drudgery to which the community commonly puts them.” (Birkerts puts this as "poetry is the Sabbath of language" (31), which is a similar point but with a rather different emphasis!) Poetry is an oppositional, self-contradictory genre, working “secret changes in the heart," since “having been elsewhere in art, we are somehow no longer the same persons that we were." Indeed, says Owen, “poetry may call to that part of us that hungers for straying….when we give in to such straying, we encounter the unexpected, the other; and it becomes a part of us” (5). We “discover the voice in the song becoming our own” (5).

Poetry thus has a complex, twofold relationship with communal values. On the one hand, because it tells us “we can make our home anywhere," poetry inculcates a sort of cosmopolitan individualism. As a "public declaration of private or alternative values” (9), poetry offers us glimpses of “the private speaking back to the public”--but it does so in the public arena, in a language we share, and thus implies a return to the polis, however changed, when the reading is through.

This last point of Owens' dovetails nicely with Rukeyser's focus on poetry as a witness to the community, an articulation of values the community ought, by rights to hold--perhaps those it possesses, but does not live up to--and of emotional truths that the community may be afraid to own or profess, especially in times of turmoil or crisis. Rukeyser traces, in the life of the individual and in the life of the community, the process of repression through which the "truth of feeling" that poetry articulates gets systematically forgotten, whether by adolescents wondering "'What should I be feeling' instead of the true 'What do you feel?' 'What do I feel?" or by countries turning away from "experiment in human relation, religious exploration, political novelty," and so on, since all of these seem "evidence of what has broken down." Where Owen emphasizes the amoral, even anti-social liberation of impulse that poetry provokes, however, Rukeyser emphasizes the social responsibility, or social reward, that poetry provides.

To flesh out our sense of the Owen, we discussed the Archilochos, the Matthews, and the Hirsch. For Rukeyser, the Barrett Browning and the Emma Lazarus. More on the rest to come, along with some practical applications of these ideas (thanks to one of the students, whose closing written comment asked, "So what? How do I use this in my teaching?")

Must run--but before I go, this final quote from Owen. A credo of sorts:

Poetry means to “entice you with words, to shame your dullness, to lure you into becoming other, to make you resist each submission, to make you want what you cannot have and suffer not attaining it” (7).

As I head off to buy milk, make dinner, and sort the laundry, "shame your dullness" is the key, for me.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Pleasure, Taste, Discrimination, 3

Two memories, on the topic of taste, from two of my favorite teachers.

First, when I was a poet in graduate school, a thousand years ago, J. D. McClatchy taught a poetry workshop. Among his many striking lessons in pedagogy--the raised eyebrow, the outrageous aside, the telling, mercurial quip--this assignment stays with me: "Whenever you walk into a gallery of art, scan the paintings and choose which is the best. Then look at it, long and hard, and figure out why." Whenever I remember that advice, and take the challenge, I remember how vivid my sense of quality can be--and how vexing, how delightfully vexing, it is to articulate what I so immeidately and intuitively sense.

Second, this, from my days as a punk kid at college. William Corbett, another wonderful poet, was my freshman composition teacher. One week, he gave us an assignment out of Louis Zukofsky's A Test of Poetry. We went home with three translations of the same short passage from the Odyssey: one from the Renaissance (in blank verse? fourteeners? I don't have the book handy), one in heroic couplets (presumably from the 18th century), the last in free verse. Our job: to write a 3-5 page paper on which was the best. Not the most accurate, mind you, but the best as epic poetry in English.

As I recall, the class split roughly down the middle between the Renaissance and modern versions. The argument that ensued got us talking about genre--what is an epic? what should it sound like?--about phrasing, about diction, about the whole project of translation. Bill's goal was not to get us to agree, or to bring us around to his tastes; rather, he wanted to hone our ability to pass judgment, articulate the grounds for that judgment, and respond to criticism of those grounds and their consequences, preferably with confidence, intellectual depth, and aplomb.

One last lesson, from both of these splendid teachers: whenever you declare that this is better than that--this poem, this poet, this poetic, this task for poetry--you make another, implicit declaration as well: "poetry matters." Maybe even another, behind that: "quality matters." And another behind that: "something actually matters to me. There is some world out there about which I just can't say, like (shrug), ''Whatever.'"

Too many students come into my classes with their give-a-damns busted. If I can fix them, in whatever context, I've done them a favor that lasts.

P.S. Starting tomorrow, I'll be blogging about my NEH summer seminar for schoolteachers, "Say Something Wonderful: Teaching the Pleasures of Poetry." If you know a teacher who might want to follow along with our readings and discussions, please spread the word!

Friday, June 24, 2005

Pleasure, Taste, Discrimination, 2

More thoughts this morning about the Donald Davie quote from yesterday, and why it troubles me.

What use is it, really, to say something like "there are sheep and goats--achieved and unachieved works--in art"? A serious question, this: how do we use such ideas, such discriminations?

There was a time when poetry education consisted of teaching students to have good taste, which meant, essentially, the poems in Palgrave's Golden Treasury. Or the parts of poems: Palgrave was known to leave out stanzas here and there from Shelley, on the grounds that they were less "achieved," less noble in language or sentiment, than the rest of the poem at hand.

More recently, in my own education, Perrine's Sound and Sense boasted chapters on "Telling Good Poetry from Bad" and "Telling Good Poetry from Great." Step lively, children! There's livestock to sort!

Now, I know that we all do, in fact, pass such judgments all the time. Maybe the virtue of Davie's remarks lies in reminding us of that simple fact: we pass judgments, and we should be prepared to articulate and defend them. Maybe this is one of the "things to do with poems" we should add to our list. On the other hand, do I really want to spend class time trying to convince a student--or hallway time, to convince a colleague--that he or she shouldn't like something he or she enjoys? "It is impossible to reason a man out of something he was not reasoned into in the first place," says Jonathan Swift somewhere.

Debates over sheephood and goatishness are among the great pleasures of life in the arts, or indeed of life in any realm taken seriously. Listen to sports fans argue, or heavy metal fans; log on to a romance-readers website and listen in on the back-fence arguments over this and that genre, novelist, or scene. But surely we should teach how to engage in those debates with gusto and relish and flair, and not kid ourselves, not be such fools, as to think we could teach their conclusions!

Examples of which to follow next week, when we read a poem or two my teachers have asked for at the "Say Something Wonderful" seminar.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Pleasure, Taste, Discrimination

A provocative quote "submitted for discussion" over at Mark's blog this morning, on the subject of "elitism." It comes from Donald Davie, the critic and poet--a dour man, by the sound of this, at any rate, but a smart one, and perhaps by "dour" I simply mean "serious." In any case, says Davie (in part):
" the arts, as between the genuine and the fake, or between the achieved and the unachieved, there cannot be any halfway house. The Calvinist doctrines of election and reprobation may be false and brutal in every other realm of human endeavour; in the arts they rule. And the catholicism of Lewis and Tolkien becomes, when extended into the arts, merely a lax eclecticism..."
(For the source, and more from the passage, see the link above.)

My comment on this earlier today was flip, perhaps--I'll let you read it chez Mark--and I think I'll have to revisit this when my head is somewhat clearer. For now, let me pose against it, as a counterpoint, these passages from early in Auden's The Dyer's Hand:
Good taste is much more a matter of discrimination than of exclusion, and when good taste feels compelled to exclude, it is with regret, not with pleasure.
A child's reading is guided by pleasure, but his pleasure is undifferentiated; he cannot distinguish, for example, between aesthetic pleasure and the pleasures of learning or daydreaming. In adolescence we realize that there are different kinds of pleasure, some of which cannot be enjoyed simultaneously, but we need help from others in defining them. Whether it be a matter of taste in food or taste in literature, the adolescent looks for a mentor in whose authority he can believe. He eats or reads what his mentor recommends and, inevitably, there are occasions when he has to deceive himself a little; he has to pretend that he enjoys olives or War and Peace a little more than he actually does.

Between the ages of twenty and forty we are engaged in the process of discovering who we are, which involves learning the difference between accidental limitations which it is our duty to outgrow and the necessary limitations of our nature which we cannot trespass with impunity. Few of us can learn this without making mistakes, without trying to become a little more of a universal man than we are permitted to be. It is during this period that a writer can most easily be led astray by another writer or by some ideology. When someone between twenty and forty says, apropos of a work of art, "I know what I like," he is really saying "I have no taste of my own but accept the taste of my cultural milieu," because, between twenty and forty, the surest sign that a man has a genuine taste of his won is that he is uncertain of it. After forty, if we hve not lost our authentic selves altogether, pleasure can again become what it was for us as children, the proper guide to what we should read (5-6)
Why pair these passages? Damned if I know. For the contrast in tone, if nothing else: the gentle catholicity of Auden (small "c," but you know what I mean) against the strictness of the Davie. You know which I prefer. Davie's categories--the genuine and the fake, the achieved and the unachieved--seem too cut and dried to account for the range of pleasures I take in, well, charming minor poems, all the time. He excludes, but without regret. Maybe that's what I bristle at.

And yet, and yet...I've spent the day slogging through a truly annoying novel (Erica Jong's Sappho's Leap, which only duty to Parnassus has kept in my lap), and I certainly have no compunctions about passing judgment on that. Am I, then, a hypocrite? Or just, at last, at long last, over forty? ("Thank God for forty," as a particularly charming minor poem says!)

More to come--and, next week, I'll start blogging my NEH seminar, "Say Something Wonderful: Teaching the Pleasures of Poetry," during which such issues will certainly arise.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Mass Appeal, part 2: the Whole Hockney

Nan sends the full quote from David Hockney's THAT'S THE WAY I SEE IT, edited by Nikos Stangos (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1993), pp. 170-171.
There have been very few really good artists throughout history and the great artists always perceive life positively by offering us through their art different forms that delight us, in a way like great religions. That is why, to someone saying that art is not for everybody, I would answer that if a religion were only for the few, it would not be a great religion, it would be a mere cult. Any great religion has to be for everyone, no one excluded. It cannot be just for bright people, it has to be for all humankind. Christianity is like that, Islam is like that, Buddhism is like that. Even in religions which are hierarchical, like Hinduism, everybody is included.

Art has never excluded anyone from understanding it and enjoying it in the past. If the art did not work for most people, the artists were not considered to be much good. (On the whole, what we call bad art is dishonest and tries to deceive the spectator.) So-called primitive art had a purpose and it had to work. The artist couldn't just make figures which, when carried in procession down the street, made people ask, What's that bit of wood he's holding? If they asked that, it would mean that the art hadn't worked. The art had to be read in a certain way or it was not thought to be any good. Good art is invested with a certain universality of feeling and meaning--this is one way of defining it--and that is why it can come from anywhere in the world as well as from any time. This is why even things made in civilizations we know little about work on us, because they hit on something universal.
So, nu? What do you think?

Mass Appeal

I was just rereading some comments from last week, and wanted to post this one, from Nan Cohen, above the fold.
Do you know the passage from one of David Hockney's autobiographical volumes of work in which he says that great art, like great religions, must have something for everyone? "Otherwise, it is not a religion, it is a mere cult" is how he puts it. Great art imagines an audience of all humanity even if not every member can perceive it to the depths. (I love Oscar Wilde, but his work's appeal is in part cultish.) The whole passage is long; I have often handed it out to students, especially those who are enthralled with the idea of the poem as puzzle and are in love with obscurity--the more, the better.

I'm reminded of seeing, a year or two ago in Los Angeles, the Actors' Gang production "The Mysteries," which included four medieval mystery plays as well as three contemporary takes; I was just enthralled by the immediate appeal of the medieval plays in a way I never approached when reading them. I have never felt so much like an illiterate fourteenth-century peasant. At one point I was nearly in tears with pity for Christ. And I'm Jewish.
As I read the various posts about "what comes next"--at Robert's blog, say, where there's a plea for more poetry of the "contingent difficulty" variety--my heart sinks, and Nan's post gives me some idea why. Doesn't anyone writing these blogs (let alone reading them) want, or even imagine wanting, the "next big thing" to be "great art," in Hockney's terms? Expansive, open to the many, not the few, immediately appealing, moving us to tears for those we do not ordinarily care about? Sounds better than a Contingent Difficulty Revival to me!

(In other words, I'll have what she's having.)


Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Things to Do With Poems: the Collins report

Yes, that's Collins as in Billy Collins, who gets no respect from the blogoisie, precisely because he is so easily likeable, and by so many of the wrong sort of people, who then think that they--middlebrow book-club readers, country music fans, even (gasp!) Republicans--like poetry.

So, anyway, here's a poem by Collins which is all about getting students to do different things with poems, and about their response:

“Introduction to Poetry”

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

On my grumpier days, this poem strikes me as rather disingenuous. Collins depends on our being comfortable with some fairly complex reading strategies: not just a facility with metaphor (we can imagine or “unpack” each successive figure, stanza by stanza), but also a dash of previous literary knowledge (like the fact that “stanza” comes from the Italian for “room,” which helps when reading stanza 4). Because of this familiarity, which we aquired somehow, somewhere, “we” don’t have to interrogate the poor poem “to find out what it really means”; we just “get it,” don’t we?

This fine sunny morning, on the other hand, I see the poem more as a character study. Pity the the hapless "Introduction to Poetry" instructor who gives these sorts of assignments, only to find his students responding the best, the toughest, the most direct way that they know! (Perhaps they've had earlier teachers who spoke, as mine did in college, of "interrogating the text.")

What do you all think of this poem as an “Introduction to Poetry”?

On the earbuds: Toby Keith, Shock'n Y'all

Building a Mystery: Blueprints from Norman

Norman takes me up on my "assignment," in the last post, to outline "the rhetorical tricks, the gestures of language" that make a poem seem mysterious. (This as an alternative, you may recall, to getting woozy on incense and / or treating the poem as a puzzle to be solved.) He uses the Howe I posted as his test case, and comes up with this partial list:

1. Subject matter: a significant moment in the Western mythos, with tremendous historical and cultural influence. So, in effect, mystery is hardwired in the poem.

2. Parataxis: the use of a paratactic, relatively fragmented and disjunctive mode of writing suggests a secretive code or whispered truth.

3. Repetition & variation: this creates a litany-like effect or the sense of a magic spell.

4. Stanza structure: the use of the couplet and then single lines provides a sense of order and contributes to the music, the rhythm of thought. In this case, I get a feeling of measured calm.

5. Mixed discourse: Immediate and expressive discourse juxtaposed with a more "analytic" or even "scholarly" type of language. This results in a high degree of...

6. Self-consciousness: an overriding sense of awareness in and of the poem; i.e. this is mystery and simultaneously an investigation or demystifying of mystery.

"Howe is a master of all this," he adds; "one sees it used to great effect in Palmer's poetry too. Of course, I would never think of trying it in my poems."

(Gosh, kids? Do you think we should take a look at one of Norman's next? Check out these passages from his long poem, Track, for a sneak preview. They're pretty darned masterful, too.)

Needless to say, I like Norman's list, not least because it is a list, a heuristic, which you could teach to students and then have them use to read other "mysterious" poems, with an eye to which techniques they deploy, and when, and what additional techniques come into play. Heck, if you had a creative writing class, you could give them this list of techniques as part of an assignment. They're somewhat more open-ended than a "write a sestina" assignment, but I've had a belly-full of sestinas (hasn't everyone?), and there are plenty of significant moments in the Western mythos yet to be mined for ore.

One afterthought: notice how the first move Norman lists--the turn to "significant" subject matter--lets your paratactic, even disjunctive poem ride piggyback on a much more familiar and comfortable mode of transport: narrative. Better: story.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: the mind craves stories, and if God B didn't want us to select data from the buzzing, blooming chaos around us and shape them into complexly coherent narratives, we wouldn't have evolved to do it so endlessly and effortlessly. "Mysterious" poems that play off existing stories--whether myth, history, or the autobiographical introduction to a collection, as Howe often does--always seem to me far more effective than "mysterious" poems that don't. And when you get a "mysterious" poem that plays off of several stories at once, as Ronald Johnson's ARK does with Orpheus and Eurydice, the Wizard of Oz, Genesis chapters 1 and 2, and a variety of other twice-told tales, you get that much more mental engagement, that much more pleasure and play.

(Speaking of which, although I've linked to Mark Scroggins' blog so often here--do any of you know his poems? His first book, Anarchy, has a series of poems that play off two powerful stories, at least for me--the rise and fall of punk rock, in my own youth, and the English Civil War, which last brings elements of the Western mythos from dueling Christianities to debates over freedom and authority into the mix. He gets the conjunction from Greil Marcus' Lipstick Traces, one of the best books in any genre in the last twenty-five years, but Marcus gives you narrative, and Scroggins, shattered lyric. Great stuff, and students into rock music would love it.)

Monday, June 20, 2005

Things to Do with Poems

The dust may be a-settlin' on our "difficulty" spat, but Lo! In the distance, a mist begins to rise. Bring out the dry ice and crank up the amps to 11--and, of course, lower the eighteen-inch Stonehenge--it's time for one last dash of mystery.

Mark, that is to say, has turned up a couple of indispensible quotes from Oscar Wilde (“The Critic as Artist”) and the young Stephane Mallarme, saying things like this--“He [the critic] may deepen its [the art-work's] mystery, to raise round it, and round its maker, that mist of wonder which is dear to both gods and worshippers alike”--and this: “Whatever is sacred, whatever is to remain sacred, must be clothed in mystery. All religions take shelter behind arcana which they unveil only to the predestined. Art has its own mysteries.”

Well, folks, it doesn't get any Higher Church than that, does it? I'm fairly woozy from incense, even as we speak. What, though, can we do with such instructions pedagogically? My students would love me to tell them to "raise a mist of wonder" around a poem they have been assigned, although I'm not sure they always know the difference between a mist of wonder and a cloud of confusion, let alone a shpritz of Calvin Klein's Eternity!

It would be awfully helpful, though, for me to show them quotes like these when we're hitting poets from the 1890s and early 1900s--maybe a little earlier and later, too, up through the present day--with an assignment that asks them to figure out just how the poet has tried to create an aura of the sacred by "clothing the poem in mystery." What are the rhetorical tricks, the gestures of language, that raise those curtains of arcana? How effective are they? Do they make us feel one of the predestined--and if so, how--or do we feel more like Dorothy, the Small and Meek? Where or when do we glimpse the man or woman behind the curtain? Such instructions would be ideal for teaching just about anything by Susan Howe, like this page from "The Nonconformist's Memorial," which muses on and recreates the noli me tangere scene from the gospels:

The motif of fear is missing
The motif of searching

Historicity of the scene
Confused narrative complex

Two women with names
followed by two without names

Distance original disobedience

Against the coldness of force
Intellectual grasp

Scene for what follows
Do not touch me

It is by chance that she weeps
Her weeping is not a lament

She has a voice to cry out
No community can accompany her

No imagination can dream

Improbable disciple passages

Exegetes explain the conflict

Some manuscripts and versions

Her sadness

Perhaps more important, though--since few teachers have the chance to teach Howe, outside of college--this could be a way to frame a discussion of Eliot. So many students think that the point of reading anything by Eliot--from "Love Song of JAP" onward--is to bang your head against it until you have "figured it out," and indeed this puzzle-pleasure, leading to a sense of mastery, may be central for some, but it's off-putting as anything to others. (And, sometimes, it leads you quite astray!) Students who know that Eliot comes out of the poetry world that Wilde and Mallarme delineate--even as he chafes within it, turns against it--will cut themselves some slack as they go. And, perhaps, may end up caught up far more in the poems than their puzzle-master classmates.

Hmmm... More on all this soon, via a couple of textbooks I need to review before my NEH seminar next week! And some suggestions, for Nan, about ways to teach the Lee from yesterday.


Sunday, June 19, 2005

It's Fathers' Day

It's Fathers' Day, of course--a very important holiday at my house, although not nearly as important as its, ahem, maternal counterpart.

In honor of which, these poems. I apologize in advance if they're not difficult enough to... well, 'nuff said on that front. If they're in the wrong "mode," not the next big thing or the last one, then so much the worse for literary fashion, say I. They both teach awfully well, by the way; if you'd like, I can post some thoughts on how I present them, etc. For now, though, just enjoy.

Father’s Song, by Gregory Orr

Yesterday, against admonishment,
my daughter balanced on the couch back,
fell and cut her mouth.

Because I saw it happen I knew
she was not hurt, and yet
a child’s blood’s so red
it stops a father’s heart.

My daughter cried her tears;
I held some ice
against her lip.
That was the end of it.

Round and round; bow and kiss.
I try to teach her caution;
she tries to teach me risk.

Words for Worry, by Li Young-Lee

Another word for father is worry.

Worry boils the water
for tea in the middle of the night.

Worry trimmed the child’s nails before
singing him to sleep.

Another word for son is delight,
another word, hidden.

And another is One-Who-Goes-Away.
Yet another, One-Who-Returns.

So many words for son:

But only one word for father.
And sometimes a man is both.
Which is to say sometimes a man
manifests mysteries beyond
his own understanding.

For instance, being the one and the many,
and the loneliness of either. Or

the living light we see by, we never see. Or

the sole word weighs
heavy as a various name.

And sleepless worry folds the laundry for tomorrow.
Tired worry wakes the child for school.

Orphan worry writes the note he hides
in the child’s lunch bag.
It begins, Dear Firefly....

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Difficult to what?

Deanna's comment a few days ago raises a useful question:
"Difficulty" is not an issue. We don't take students to an art gallery and ask them if they "understand" every piece. We ask them to look at its beauty. ...same thing with words. Even a simple picture of a lily-- what is more complex than that to understand? [...] I didn't REALLY appreciate poetry until I began to just look at the beauty of the words. When I gave myself permission, as a student, to take from it whatever I wanted to, then I began to really appreciate it. Now as an adult, I refuse to be intimidated. When we look at poetry without intimidation, then it's not so difficult. Difficult under whose terms then becomes the question.
I'm not entirely comfortable with telling my students to "take from it whatever [they] want to," although my focus in class on describing poems, rather than interpreting them, may come to the same thing in the end. More on that in a day or two, via the Wormser / Capella book for teachers Surges of Language.

In either case, though, Deanna's underlying point is crucial for us to remember. When we say "difficult" we should always add a verb: "difficult to..." Difficult to what? "Difficult to explicate" is quite different from "difficult to appreciate." "Difficult to read for more than a few lines without losing interest" is different from "difficult to talk about animatedly in an exciting theoretical or historical context." "Difficult to understand" isn't always the same as "difficult to enjoy" or "difficult to lose yourself in" or "hard to find yourself haunted by."

(These are not quite the same, I notice, as Steiner's categories. I think they may be just as useful. Maybe more so, actually.)

One task that faces us in the classroom, then, is to multipy the verbs of engagement. We need to build in opportunities for students to read closely, with explicatory precision--I won't give up on that--but we need to offer chances for students to do other things with poems (with other kinds of poems) as well. There may be some things--perhaps something to do with beauty, as Deanna suggests--that we can do with any poem, too, but the more we keep the categories separate in our minds, the more versitile we, and our students, will be!

Friday, June 17, 2005

Of Squirrels and Spirituality

From the latest "Reflective Happiness" newsletter, this word from the psychology front:

"George Vaillant, Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard, leads the Medici group asking about the relation of spirituality and religion to well being. One of the first questions is to distinguish spirituality from religiousness. Vaillant believes that spirituality is limbic and primitive, while religion is cortical and highly cultural. I [Dr. Martin Seligman] would put it another way: spirituality is to humans as nuts are to squirrels. Evolution has favored spirituality, the desire to belong to and to serve something larger than the self, and it creates the positive sum games of meaning and the building of positive institutions to support meaning and purpose.

But this is more than an armchair project. Vaillant has in his databank the detailed findings of the three most complete studies of human beings across the entire lifespan: the Harvard classes of 1939-44, the Glick study of Inner City Boston, and the Terman Study of Genius. In each of these teen-age to grave studies, there are various measures of well being, of aging well, of spirituality and of religion, and this will likely give us our first close look at how spirituality and religion enhance living and at how and when they do so."

More on how all this relates to literature when I've had the chance to mull it over. For now, just remember: the next time someone starts talking about spirituality, think Mr. Peanut.

Teaching Tips: Difficult Poetry

My colleague R--, who teaches poetry to the same set of students I do, writes:

In defense of difficulty, I often hear myself making versions of the following statements to students:

1) I rarely love most what I love most easily. For a poem (or a song
or a piece of music or a painting...) to have abiding interest for me, there has
to be something puzzling about it. This seems to me a useful, even
meaningful distinction between art and entertainment, and I do think of poetry
as art (though it can also be very entertaining). And, this is NOT a class
distinction of high/low art, but, rather, one of art as a meaningful

1a) I want a lot out of art. I don't want it to be cute or cuddly; I want it to blow my mind. I want it to change the way I think about its own medium (whether words or sounds or paint or bronze), and, perhaps especially with poetry, I want it to therefore change the way I experience my everyday world. There are poems, songs, paintings, etc. that have changed my life. Without them, I would not be who I am today. And those that persist in my mind's eye are inevitably those that were "difficult" when first encountered.

2) As an undergraduate prof. of mine told me when I was first reading Proust, "It doesn't matter if you throw it against the wall; what matters is if you want to pick it up again."

3) "Difficulty" is really just another name for not having your expectations reinforced. "Accessible" is really just another name for habitual. For me, art is about progressivity (though, as you well know, this does not mean a kind of mindless hurtling forward, but rather a conscious and conscientious (re)working of the materials at hand.

Anyone else with talking points on difficulty? Send them along!

Glum and Glummer

Who's glum? Not your humble blogger--I have a brand new Larivee Parlor Guitar just itching to be played once more! (The glorious octave mandolin I had my eye on when I headed into the shop turned out to cost, not the $425 I had remembered, but $4425, which was a bit out of my price range.) No, the glum ones are the middle school students I've been reading about on a listserv for teachers, whose exposure to literature--for a summer school class!--will take them from the romantic / sci fi / fantasy world that underwrites so much great poetry, later.

Consider this exchange. First, this request for suggestions:

"My goal is to do things the kids really like and have fun with...this shouldn't be torture and full of drills and test prep. They are at a variety of levels, but none that are very low. Some are very high and some are average. I had the kids write me a letter today where they told me what they liked and are interested in doing and what they absolutely hated and didn't want to do at all. I didn't get a ton of ideas from them, though, and the responses that they did give were pretty general, such as, "I like short stories." I responded to each of their letters asking some speciifc questions, so hopefully I will get some even better ideas, but I thought I would ask you guys for ideas as well.

There is really nothing I HAVE to do...the director of the program would like some focus on non fiction since that is a huge defecit for most of the kids. Any good ideas on ENGAGING non fiction for kids at this level? Any fun, hands-on activities that have really worked well for you? We will also have access to the computer lab, so if anyone can direct me to some good sites with activities, games, etc, I would be very grateful."

Sounds good so far, right? Now comes the first suggestion:

"Why not have them do a research project on the topic of their choice (important for buy-in) where they produce a mulit-genre project for the final project. You could do mini-lessons on different genre styles, how to research & MLA documentation, work with them on reading their non-fiction research, help them with determining what would be the best genres to use to present their findings, etc. That would certainly allow them choice in what they research, and encourage primarily (but not totally) non-fiction. They could still choose to use fiction as part of the project."

Still good, right? It's wide open, it pairs genres--could be fun! (That was, you'll recall, part of the plan.) I wonder what sorts of topics they might want to read about this summer, though? Let's see--something fun, something interesting, something with an engaging literary tie-in. Maybe something like this:

"I paired a fiction and non-fiction book on teen problems--issues that affect teens--pregnancy, drugs, gangs, cutting, cheating, steroids, etc. that was really successful at the end of the school year. Students did research on their problem and reported to class via PowerPoint presentations. I had 165 students and had each student select their own fiction book after they selected a research issue. Permission slips were required for controversial topics like abortion, pregnancy, self-mutilation, sexual assault, etc. Only 1 kid out of 165 was restricted by a parent. I worked with my librarian to pull over 300+ fiction books in our MS library dealing with about 15 teen problem / issue categories. There were few duplicates in fiction titles (ex.: only had two title about cutting, so had multiple copies of those books) so way too many titles to list."

Now, I don't mean to dismiss this project out of hand. The teacher who suggested it says it was "really successful," and I'm in no position to say it wasn't! But what a sad, sad, narrow vision of fiction these students must have. 300+ novels about teen problems? "Jesus Crisis!" as my daughter used to say.

All of which is just to say, let's not give ourselves too much grief over how difficult poetry seems to our students, whether those difficulties be (in George Steiner's list, glossed a few entries ago) tactical, contingent, ontological, modal, or anything else. The amazing thing is how well they read it at all!

P.S. A few minutes after drafting the above, I started leafing through the introduction to that fat anthology of Pablo Neruda that FSG published a while ago. In it, Ilan Stevens recalls encountering Neruda first as a boy in Mexico, as part of his 5th grade curriculum. The text? 20 Poems of Love and a Desperate Song. Damn! I want my son coming home from 5th grade reciting poems like this:

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.

Write, for example, 'The night is starry
and the stars are blue and shiver in the distance.'

The night wind revolves in the sky and sings.

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
I loved her, and sometimes she loved me too.

Through nights like this one I held her in my arms.
I kissed her again and again under the endless sky.

She loved me, sometimes I loved her too.
How could one not have loved her great still eyes.

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
To think that I do not have her. To feel that I have lost her.

To hear the immense night, still more immense without her.
And the verse falls to the soul like dew to the pasture.

What does it matter that my love could not keep her.
The night is starry and she is not with me.

This is all. In the distance someone is singing. In the distance.
My soul is not satisfied that it has lost her.

My sight tries to find her as though to bring her closer.
My heart looks for her, and she is not with me.

The same night whitening the same trees.
We, of that time, are no longer the same.

I no longer love her, that's certain, but how I loved her.
My voice tried to find the wind to touch her hearing.

Another's. She will be another's. As she was before my kisses.
Her voice, her bright body. Her infinite eyes.

I no longer love her, that's certain, but maybe I love her.
Love is so short, forgetting is so long.

Because through nights like this one I held her in my arms
my soul is not satisfied that it has lost her.

Though this be the last pain that she makes me suffer
and these the last verses that I write for her.

And if that's not a poem about "issues that affect teens," then I don't know what is.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Contextual Healing

A flurry of postings from Josh and Mark and Robert (twice) debating the course and fate of "indeterminate" (or post-avant, or whatever) poetry, with an eye to What Comes Next. Robert notes that the slither of "ontologically difficult" poetry looks an awful lot like the slither of euphonious late-Victorian / watery Symbolist verse that Pound et. al. rejected: verse that traded on resonance, not on precision, and so forth. Who will rescue us now? (Cue up "I Need a Hero" here, from the Shrek 2 big finale: Uno, dos, quatro--hit it!)

All of which makes me say just this: I'm glad I'm not a poet.

You see, since I'm just a reader, and a teacher, I don't have to worry about What Comes Next. I tuned out of this debate around the time of the Barnard conference on "Where Lyric and Language Meet," and I haven't seen any need to tune in since. Debates about poetics are about as interesting to me as arguments over sausage recipes and competing meat-grinders, folks. I'm hungry, and if you won't git to the skillet and dish up some poems, there's them that will.

(I'm sorry. Was that anti-intellectual? Cue up "Oops--I did it again," preferably in Richard Thompson's medieval remix, and let's get back to business.)

Now, as a teacher, I can take a crucial lesson from one of Mark's observations: "The oppositional force of the 'original' Language writing," says he, "lay as much in its social formations, its rejection of conventional circuits of consecration and validation (the academy, trade and university presses, high-tone magazines), as in the forms and modes of the poetry itself; now that those forms and modes have begun to be common parlance and entered into the APR-AWP jobsearch marketplace, it becomes difficult to pretend they’re oppositional any longer – at least in the same way, or to the same degree. I'm frankly uncomfortable here, and need to think more about the issue, especially in regards to the creeping suspicion I have that a form or mode of poetry has no determinate ideological valence outside the social formation in which it is composed and received."

If I were to teach some of that "original" Language writing, then--as opposed to the more recent "crispy" variety?--I'd probably want to embed it in the story Mark tells. Indeed, I suspect that the more we teach poems as embedded in stories--biographical, literary-historical, whatever they might be--the wider the variety of poems our students will enjoy. Let's face it, folks: our minds crave plot, crave characters, crave coherence of all sorts. If we satisfy those cravings with a story about, say, scrappy young poets who overturn, overturn, overturn--get me the casting director here: I'm thinking Milton, Dickinson, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Trisan Tzara, Susan Howe--our students will gobble up ontologically difficult poems like popcorn, baby, popcorn.

Speaking of which, here's a snack I've enjoyed for the last few days. It's the opening poem of Kathrine Varnes' new collection The Paragon, a book which veers from narrative to chewy, discombobulating juxtapositions with gurlesque delight. (Can that be the Next Big Thing? Please?) Since the title drops the "Tell it" from the Neville Brother's song--that would be a moment of "contingent difficulty," I suppose--I'd teach this poem as a piece about telling and not-telling, confession and evasion or concealment (which is to say, "tactical difficulty"), and try to tease out some clues from the poem for a narrative fromwhich it might spring:

Like It Is

Here is a spray of heliotrope
in fuchsia bloom. Here is the fool
who said I do. Here is the grope

that started it all, a small granule
of undissolved sugar. Tarry
and it’s whisked away by the cruel

waiter who lives by an estuary.
Why do we want to redesign
hip pockets anyway? You bury

the curses next to the common thyme;
I mulch them with shame worn sleek
with worry. Whatever stars align

themselves on this — um — yawn — antique
affair, let blaze out. Elephant
on the couch: we crowd the ends, sweet geek.

Let’s name the beast, its elegant
urn-like rump. Let it elope.
Our love was ever indigent.
More on this, on Peter's playlist, and on other things, tomorrow.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

At St. Peter's Gate

This came earlier today, and is to good to languish overnight. Comments to follow tomorrow.

Dear Eric,

Need I say how much I've been enjoying your bloggery? As I've mentioned to Scroggins, it's been like Gatorade for my aching electronic limbs. Ah, now that's refreshing!

Though it's nearly a witty aside, your comment, "Sadly, between gradeschool fantasy fiction and collegiate modern poetry classes falls The Shadow of realism, killing such romance," set me to thinking. I think this progression - or obstruction - is inaccurate, at least from my experience. In fact, if it weren't for gradeschool fantasy fiction, I don't think I would ever have become involved with poetry. Furthermore, I think fantasy - & of course sci-fi - provide a cipher for the difficulty you, Mark, Mike, Norman & everybody has been talking about.

Whoops! That was actually the point I was trying to make--that IF the Shadow falls, poetry withers, and alas, in terms of books assigned in grade school, fall it does, more often than not. A problem to address elsewhere. Now, back to you in studio:
Let me plot it backwards, rather than forwards: nearly all the most engaged readers of fantasy & science fiction I know are invested readers in poetry - as poets, teachers, reviewers, fans. Many of us are hard-pressed to choose between a favorite fantasy trilogy or American long poem. (Not to mention that two of the most inventive [& pleasurable!] such long poems - The Changing Light at Sandover & ARK - are, in essence, science fantasy.) I don't think these are coincidental. I think reading deeply in sci-fi & fantasy prepares one for reading seriously in poetry. (You could just as easily have quoted from the Mighty T. as from Susan Cooper in your note; & Philip Pullman inaugurates [that's the right word for it] The Amber Spyglass with verses from Ashbery & Rilke, c'mon!)
For me, deep, steady, constant reading in fantasy & sci-fi connected me as a teenager to progressive rock (& Metal, natch.) Jon Anderson's lyrics in Tales from Topographic Oceans, not to mention the mystical/quizzical lyrics for "Close to the Edge," make Ashbery seem perfectly legible, not to mention the lucidity of, say, Kerouac's blues or Ginsberg's LSD poems, or you name it. I've made no secret of the fact that I started writing poetry because I wanted to write lyrics for prog. rock operas; my first favorite poets were Pete Townshend, Ian Anderson, Neil Peart, & the collective Krewes of Metallica & Iron Maiden. (I read Dune in order to understand the song on Maiden's Piece of Mind devoted to the book. Metallica got me reading Lovecraft. But Rush got me reading Shakespeare & Coleridge - but never Ayn Rand!)

Which is all to say, when as a freshman at the University of Chicago, I walked into 57th St. Books & purchased a copy of The Waste Land & Other Poems, in the rack-size HBJ paperback, with the dyspeptic portrait of TSE geening out at me, all because John Tipton, who lived in my dorm, mentioned that he had been reading it, I was already prepared for its discombobulations. I'm not saying I "got" it right away (or have yet), but I'm saying that its transparent difficulty was in no way dissuading to me toward reading it. (I had bought a copy of Finnegans Wake, and leafed dutifully through it, because it was mentioned in a Triumph album, after all.)

OK, my geek pedigree is all too clear, but I think difficulty has many shades to it - some of them pedagogical, which can appear unwantedly negative - but some of them personal & intuitive, & not altogether unpleasant, oftentimes sought after.

My intensive Science Fiction & Religion class begins on Monday - so, I might just be revving myself up here.

In any case - loving the Blog...

Mystery Achievement Afterthought

I finish the post, I sit down to read, and there as the epigraph to my book (Mike Heller's Uncertain Poetries) I find this answer to the "modal difficulty" question:

Even now poetic men...still seek the limits of knowledge, indeed preferably of skepticism, in order to brek free of the spell of logic. They want uncertainty, because then the magician, intimations, and the great sentiments become possible again."
--from On the Poet (1875), by Friedrich Nietzsche
Magic, intimations, and "the great sentiments": yup, I'd buy that.

Call now! Operators are standing by!

(Don't help me much with Lang Po, do it, though?)

Mystery Achievement, #2, Revised

As the man who first told Mark Scroggins that there were "very few things sexier than a winsome-voiced Southerner singing love songs to Jesus"--well, actually, I'm not sure I specified a Southerner, at that, but I know that he was skeptical at first--let me get a couple more licks in on the "bringing 'em to difficulty" front, with nods to M and to Robert Archambeau, too.

First, let me toss out a working hypothesis. Remember how, a few years back, scientists discovered a "daredevil gene"? Not the gene, perhaps, but an inborn temperament that disposes you to enjoy, or eschew, daredevil behavior: extreme sports, hang-gliding, hot-pepper chomping, Puritan theology, etc. (Hanging by a spider-web over the fires of hell? Dude! Bring it on!)

I suspect there is a similar inborn temperament where poetry is concerned: a predisposition to enjoy word-objects we do not understand; a higher tolerance for doubts and ambiguities; a slower and less-irritable reach for fact and reason in the face of mystery. This temperament has its costs--as my high school physics teacher used to say, "It's a good thing you weren't born instead of Sir Isaac Newton, Eric!" But like a fondness for extreme sports, it opens the door to some pleasures as well. In any given class, then, you're faced with students from across this "Q continuum" ("Q" here standing for the sort of puzzled "Que?" that Manuel used to mutter on "Fawlty Towers." Maybe I should call it the "K" continuum, just to be on the safe side.)

Why deploy this hypothesis? Well, first of all, it takes our various responses to "difficult" art--hermetic, obdurate, post-avant; I say it's broccoli, and I say..--well, anyway, it takes those various responses simply as a given, and not as a moral scorecard. It thus lets you "differentiate" within a single class, and bring each student, without judgment, to the sorts of poems he or she will prefer. There are, after all, a LOT of poems out there--good poems--in any given mode.

In fact, let me take this a step further. If you're teaching Pound and Eliot, why not give them Larkin's mordant attacks on modernism too? He's a fine poet, whatever his fondness for spanking fiction; indeed, his lines about the trees "coming into leaf / Like something almost being said" will serve as an elegant gloss on certain sorts of "almost said" poetics. Why not let recalcitrant students know that they have a poet or two on their side? Why not give them, at that, some of Auden's light verse, or a fistful of Stevie Smith, or the pleasure of reading Wendy Cope's "Waste-land limericks" once they've busted their chops on the original?

In April one seldom feels cheerful;
Dry stones, sun and dust make me fearful;
Clairvoyantes distress me,
Commuters depress me--
Met Stetson and gave him an earful.

She sat on a mighty fine chair,
Sparks flew as she tidied her hair;
She asks many questions,
I make few suggestions--
Bad as Albert and Lil--what a pair!

The Thames runs, bones rattle, rats creep;
Tiresias fancies a peep--
A typist is laid,
A record is played--
Wei la la. After this it gets deep.

A Phoenician named Phlebas forgot
About birds and his business--the lot,
Which is no surprise,
Since he'd met his demise
And been left in the ocean to rot.

No water. Dry rocks and dry throats,
Then thunder, a shower of quotes
From the Sanskrit and Dante.
Da. Damyata. Shantih.
I hope you'll make sense of the notes.

More on Mr. Eliot to come.

Now, what about the various sorts of difficulty that Robert enumerates (with some help from George Steiner)? How can we make those pedagogically useful?

You'll recall the list (I've changed the order slightly):
  1. Tactical Difficulty: "various kinds of coding" used "to get past censors, or to put subversive messages into works that, were the meaning manifest on the surface, would get the author (and perhaps the audience) into trouble." Double-entendres fit in here, evidently, too, although my students rarely have much trouble with these
  2. Contingent Difficulty: "the kind of difficulty that can be resolved through the presence of a good encyclopedia or perhaps a few minutes with Google." I think of this as "range of reference" difficulty, although I think that saying this "can be resolved" through footnotes or research elides the embarassment, the shame, of realizing one's ignorance. (Hugh Kenner's remark that the things you need to know to understand poems are generally things worth knowing may be true, but it doesn't really get at this immediate emotional response.)
  3. Ontological Difficulty: "here, the poem is made in such a way that it resists interpretation and maintains its indeterminacy." Steiner finds this, Robert says, comparable to "the elusiveness of religious mystery"; more recently it gets defended as political, a "noncommodifiable resistance to the market," in Robert's paraphrase.
  4. Modal Difficulty: "the reader understands what's happened in the poem, but is out of sympathy with the project and rejects it as pointless."

There are also difficulties of syntax--trouble parsing a sentence, as when my students think that "she me kissed" is Tarzan-speak for "I kissed her," and not the other way around; and trouble with asyntactical assemblies of language--and difficulties of, well, life experience, as when my younger students don't know what the hell Auden means by "the desert yawns in the bed," not really, no matter how clearly they hear it explained. Maybe these fall into categories 1 and 4, respectively.

Most of my students have little trouble with the idea of "tactical difficulty." They know all about code-language, double-entendre, and the like, and they generally even like it, like "getting it," since it certifies their possession of a certain amount of new knowledge and new skill.

They tend to resent "contingent difficulty," since it reminds them how little they know, and they dislike having their noses rubbed in that fact--so as a teacher, I have to negotiate this more delicately, schooling them to blame their peers and parents and earlier teachers, rather than the poet. I also need to teach them not to confuse contingent difficulty with ontological difficulty--that is, not to think that certain poems (The Waste Land, say) are only difficult because they don't know enough. "It's not a poem to 'figure out' so much as a poem to feel your way through," I tell them about this last, "so that you have the experience of confusion (boredom, puzzlement) and horror (as you recognize patterns and motifs, most of which are of negative experience) and failure, even, as you attempt to make the poem cohere into a single story or speaker. To experience a Waste Land world—and this world as a Waste Land—is part of your task as the reader: to resist the temptation to master all this via learning, hold it at bay, so that you come away from the poem having felt the full force of desire for something else, something better, something that would give you wholeness and peace,even as the poem keeps telling you that the usual things you might look to for this help--romantic love, cultural captial, even religious revelation--don’t do the trick or might turn out to be merely illusory."

I'll admit, I've never been able to sell my students on the "anti-commodity" version of obdurate poetics. Like what goes in a commode, commodification happens; obdurate poems may not function in the usual marketplace--"I don't buy it," saith the reader--but like styles of fashion, musical consumption, and any number of other commodities (politics, too) they serve to identify me socially and butress my sense of myself as this or that sort of person. (The kind who reads Charles Bernstein; the kind who listens to Webern or Berg; the kind who smokes whatever one smokes these days, or smokes at all.) I've tried to make that case, say when comparing The Country Between Us with Ammiel Alcalay's from the warring factions, and I think I've done a pretty good job. But none of us is ever quite sold on the idea--er, I mean, convinced.

As for "modal difficulty"--that is, "I get it, but I don't dig it, Baby," in Steiner's memorable phrase--no, he didn't really write that, but isn't it pretty to think so? Ahem. As for modal difficulty, isn't this where the fun begins? In the face of this resistance, we as teachers get the challenging, necessary job of showing our students what they'd get out of, well, digging it. We need to show them where the pleasure lies, and how to get there--show them where the door is, and how to use it, I'm tempted to say, but this would be the door into the work. To do this, I suppose we need to be frank, introspective, and persuasive; we also could use some examples of criticism that make the poems come alive. (We read the poems through the critics for a while, until we get the hang of reading them like the critics, with their prose unconsciously in mind.)

Hugh Kenner, Guy Davenport--both dead. Who does the job now, folks? Who did it for you?

(More tomorrow on poetry and science fiction and romance, via an email from Peter O'Leary, a poet to know.)

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Mystery Achievement #1

[A revised version of the now-defunct "Memo to Mark, part 1," which I broke off to watch my son play baseball.]

OK, folks—no guitar purchased, but I do feel mighty restored after a sinful interlude with a koa Baby Taylor and a fancy bouzouki at ten times the price. The latter has me thinking of Mark, a mean hand at all such eight-course instruments, so let me mull through his last postings first, at least for as long as the kids will let me.

Mark takes issue—as did Norman—with my attack on the “self-flattery” of poets and critics who see “difficult” art as the province of a “spiritual elite.” “I’d prefer to stay away from the term “elite” as well,” he sighs, “but a decade-and-a-half’s time of confronting students who automatically label anything they read that uses a word they have to look up or a syntactic structure that wouldn’t fit on a bumpersticker ‘elitist’ has made me pretty impatient with blanket dismissals of the whole notion.”

Well, Bub, I’ve been slogging it our right there beside you, and if I’ve had some better students here and there, I’ve had my share of chowderheads as well. You know what? They keep me honest. So do my relatives, most of whom have little time for “difficult” art. (I suspect we all have some of those.) Yet both sets of patience-teachers have plenty of time for a lot of other things—baseball fandom, actual politics (not the vicarious sort you do by writing poems), working with addicted homeless folks—that I can’t seem to fit into my own busy schedule. Poetry confronts readers with their ignorance more quickly, more directly, than other genres, and let's face it--no one likes to feel ignorant. That's often what the charge "it's elitist" means.

So what do we do, as teachers? Sniff at them? Chide their laziness? Make fun of them behind their backs? All three, of course, from time to time. But surely our first task is to sort out, for them, the difference between poems that simply have more complex syntax and diction than they're used to--say, 90% of what they'll read---and poems that really ARE "elitist," in that they really WANT to address a coterie, a coven, an in-crowd, a "fit audience though few," which our students, whatever their social class, are invited, just by being there, to join.

They may not want to join. There's a cost involved--a sacrifice, a risk, not least of mockery. ("You like this stuff?") There's an element of self-transformation involved, which may involve rejecting the values they grew up with--of making sense, of communal affiliation, of moral clarity--or turning away from the values they were bequeathed by Brute Biology--of syntax, of narrative, of euphony, etc.--in pursuit of new values, or in the faith that those values can be found in some story about the work they're growing to love. (Think here of the grand, almost Promethian tale of revolution in which Jerry Rothenberg and Pierre Joris embed disjunctive, anti-narrative work in Poems for the Millennium, or of the way Susan Howe's prose supplies all the autobiographical, even confessional elements her poems exclude and defy.)

When I cite Bourdieu, the social classes and differentiations I have in mind are less external , economic ones--although those need to be factored in--than they are these sorts of group dynamics within a given class, a given grade, a given school. I still recall how Dr. Roth's English class sifted itself, in 10th grade, into those who could succeed at poetry and those who couldn't--and then, once again, had to sift itself out into those from the former group who could make sense of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," which we read the day that parents came to class. Bromberg and I accepted that invitation; he went to Yale, I went to the Other Place. I don't recall if Martin Kihn was there, but if so, he knew too much and kept hismouth shut. Last I heard, he invented "Pop Up Video" for MTV, whateve that suggests.

In any case, all this is why I like, but really LIKE, Mark's simple point that “poets are a ‘word elite.’ Period.” Let’s translate that into a pedagogical point, and one which potentially lowers the anxiety level considerably. Poetryisn’t just part of the “language arts”; it is THE language art, the one where every resource of language, every damned thing that words can do, gets done, from inviting people in and shutting them out to making aura-buffing "spiritual" noises that make my heart sing and make everything...groovy (insert recorder solo at will) even when I really don't believe them.

For example, in this poem, which I find embedded in Susan Cooper's series The Dark is Rising:

On the day of the dead, when the year too dies,
Must the youngest open the oldest hills
Through the door of the birds, where the breeze breaks.
There fire shall fly from the raven boy,
And the silver eyes that see the wind,
And the light shall have the harp of gold.

By the pleasant lake the Sleepers lie,
On Cadfan’s Way where the kestrels call;
Though grim from the Grey King shadows fall,
Yet singing the golden harp shall guide
To break their sleep and bid them ride.

When light from the lost land shall return,
Six Sleepers shall ride, six Signs shall burn,
And where the midsummer tree grows tall
By Pendragon’s sword the Dark shall fall.

Y maent yr mynyddoedd yn canu,
ac y mae’r arglwyddes yn dod.

Think of how these lines--and I've known them for nigh on 35 years now--muster all sorts of resonant gestures in the service both of a riddle (each is a clue to the plot to follow) and of a spell-casting charm that spills out past the exigencies of plot, into sheer mood-magic. A child schooled on such verses is ready for the line of verse that runs from Yeats to Duncan, and probably back to a fistful of Symbolists and forward to, I don't know, Beam 10 of Ron Johnson's ARK. (Isn't Gerard de Nerval's "El Desdichado" a poem just like this without the novel to explain it?) Sadly, between gradeschool fantasy fiction and collegiate modern poetry classes falls The Shadow of realism, killing such romance. (More on that later, via Henry James.)

The only textbook I know that speaks to such issues turns out to be Kenneth Koch’s Making Your Own Days: The Pleasures of Reading and Writing Poetry, however far from the Symbolist line Koch's own poems may be. Says Koch:

Language has no truth- or reality-check. You can say anything. […] The conventional use of language does have restrictions: what we say must be clear (understandable) and true (verifiable) or, at least, familiar. A wild statement if it is sufficiently familiar will be allowed: “Life is a dream,” but not “Life is two dreams.” Poetry can say either one. Language is like a car able to go two hundred miles an hour but which is restricted by the traffic laws of prose to a reasonable speed. Poets are fond of accelerating. (25-6)
Your students—and mine—have spent years in a culture and a school system that has taught them to keep the ragtop up and the volume down and obey the posted limits at all times, at least when it comes to language. Oh, and only drive when you have somewhere to go. “Difficult” poetry isn’t full of speed bumps, as they think it must be; rather, it’s the frickin’ Autobahn, and they can’t read any of the exit signs, and they’re not entirely sure when the straight and narrow path turned onto this road they’re on. That’s a better metaphor—a less stuffy, if not necessarily less pretentious one—than anything about “elites,” I suspect. Maybe your students would respond.

More soon, based on more of the responses out there. And frankly, I think it's time we started talking about T. S. Eliot, who is THE "difficult" poet that students crash on at some point in high school, no?

(Or, "and what did you do during the Waste Land wars, daddy?")

Building a Mystery, 5: Updates Abroad!

Several longish new posts out there in the 'sphere, responding to the "Building a Mystery" debate. Mark weighed in a few days back, and I haven't really taken him up on his challenge to secularize the question; today, with "Smells Like Teen Spirit," he lets St. Peter O'Leary keep a backbeat on relics while he whips out some serious new psychodrama on a vintage Strat. But wait! There's more! Bob Archambeau, at Samizdat, has been following the argument; two more long posts on "difficulty" and "inderminacy" for your Humble Blogger to catch up on and think through in the next few hours.

Which I will do. But not now. Now, I have a guitar to buy.

Oh--but before I go, I promised Mike this last word, via email, responding to Mark and myself:

Correction of inelegancies. My riposte to Mark was not meant to exclude readers (and the demystifying usage of "consumers" strikes as insufficient, even pejorative, certainly reductive to the word "reader") or to create any division of affect (spiritual, ineffable, or, per your last, which I'll get to in a moment, some coinage you'd like). Absolutely, we are subject to the poem's energies--even if different strokes for different folks applies (Mark's position, which seemed to be concerned with the efficacy--and I was merely pointing to the possibility of efficacy for whom).

Now to your comment: "I, of course, am most interested in the question of consumption, not being a poet myself. And I think that we'd be well served to come up with some other words for that "otherwise unnameable or ineffable quality," whatever it might be, since "spiritual" has so many other implications." Zukofsky--Mark will correct me or point me--says somewhere that the reader becomes a poet because he becomes subject to the forces of the poem. I might add, as did the poet.

But I'm most concerned here with your desire for "some other words," wondering if, ultimately, this isn't an impossible task, and if a codification could be produced, wouldn't it be reductive and outdated in a sec. If I may borrow from my sense of Ari Elon's book--for which a number of us already thank you for pointing us to--every poem is going to have its own midrash, its numerous midrashes, and the last thing I would want as a teacher (I've been there) would be to close down or close off interpretation. So much else is now "settled" by the cultural industrial complex, but the poem continues to break open the cocoons and envelopes of the culture (which is, sub rosa, the dynamic/thread I hope binds my essays together), and that the teacher keeps confronting students with the existence of mystery, not as a holy secret, but as a result of the unfixability of truth and value.

In an early blog post, you spoke of "faith" as indicative of belief in "goodness:" this uncertainty is the goodness that poetry brings.

More soon, with examples, rebuttals, and a whole lot of love--

Monday, June 13, 2005

Where to take this?

Just sent this, in response to an email; it seemed right to post it here as well:

You're probably right that the word isn't the problem--that any substitute for "spiritual" will have its own baggage, and be subject to the same endless debates. Your last point, though, about poems keeping things a little unsettled, a little open, in the face of a culture (broad and local, pedagogical, test-driven, etc.) that wants things to be cut-and-dried, is where I'd like to head with this discussion, since it hits on the practical problem that we teachers face as we frame our discussions of the art.

How to teach the power, the wonder, the pleasure of that sort of openness without lapsing into the cliches my students spout about how "the poem means whatever anyone says it means, so my interpretation is just as valid as yours, and none of them matter very much, do they?" How to sort out mysteries in the poem from mere confusions in the reader? Those are the questions I face, and want to take up next.
More on which tomorrow. Time to pick up the kids, clean the house, and cook for company.

Time for a Contest!

You know, this talk of spirituality has gotten so veddy, veddy serious--I think it's time for a contest!

Ladies and gentlemen, I hereby announce the first annual
High Theological Foxhunt Prize
in "Difficult" Poetics;
the Unreadable in Pursuit of the Ineffable.
Send me suggestions--poems, only, please!--with perhaps a note or two on their yearnings, their auras, their mysteries, and / or their mystifications. I'll cull a few of the best and worst and post them, later this month.

Meanwhile, let me see if I can downshift back to a more pedagogical discourse--especially since my NEH seminar is fast approaching!
More soon,

Mas from Mike H--

On the subject of "spirituality," another fine reply, to me and to Mark, from Mike Heller:
No need to put any poets in a "spiritual elite." But the reason the
word "spiritual" continually crops up is that it is hard to find any poetry
which isn't possessed by some sort of hunger or longing, and so the word is a
short hand for that otherwise unnameable or ineffable quality, which permeates
your Auden or your Pound, your Mallarme to the nth and Oppen &
Zukofsky, each in their way. And one might say that that quality is one of
the things reserved by poetry for its way of being and speaking.

Saying this in no way elides the issues of art and consumption or elitism,
since these issues are enwrapped in the poet's work no matter its religious or
non-religious disposition. And yes, reading poetry may be no substitute
for the communal religious experience­--though such experiences are often
permeated with poetry, scripture, whatever. But that is about the
consumption of poetry, not why some people write it, what "spiritual" exercise
they may be performing for themselves by doing it.

I, of course, am most interested in the question of consumption, not being a poet myself. And I think that we'd be well served to come up with some other words for that "otherwise unnamable or ineffable quality," whatever it might be, since "spiritual" has so many other implications.

How about a few of you lurkers joining the fray? Josh? Peter? Emily? (I've read that "Lamb Curry" poem--and I know you're out there!)

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Spiritual Poetry?

And, for something not completely different--but a nice change of pace--check out the delightful "spiritual poems" by Emily Lloyd at Three Candles today. "Lamb Curry" and the Diet Coke one have me out the door and off to market, to market, to buy... Well, I'll just be enigmatic about that, perhaps. Hats off, Emily! --E

Building a Mystery 4: Return of the Norman

Norman's comment is, again, so good I have to quote it "above the fold," with my responses interwoven, as before.

Eric, I knew I was on thin ice when I mentioned a spiritual elite, but I felt uncomfortable responding to the Badiou quote without having read the work it comes from—so I decided to focus on the Mallarme quote within it.
You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din. My tastes run more to Badu (Erika) than Badiou, and I haven't read it yet either. Guilty as charged.

Maybe you and I will have to disagree, but there was a time (pretty much the whole of the 19th century) when the tension I refer to between Romantic artist and philistine did obtain, keeping in mind that from a Marxist perspective, this dichotomy was two sides of the same dialectical coin. That means one could find “self-flattery” on both sides.
Yes, I'm with you so far--and I'm sure back then I'd have been buying the Yellow Book with the best of them, if I weren't trapped in some stinking ghetto or dancing with my boychicks in Ger.

In our time, we need to be careful here about both snobbery and anti-intellectualism.
Ouch! You got me! I have, let's say, a pilot light of AI alwasy simmering in me, which certain sorts of discourse (gassy, I guess) cause to flare up in a heartbeat.

I like Mike’s point drawn from Benjamin about art that illuminates the tension itself, which, arguably, is what a great deal of art for art’s sake does.

Oops. Missed that. "The tension itself" is between artist and philistine?

But looking again at the Badiou quote and Joshua’s explanation, it seems to me that what counts is not the potential snobbery, which is always present in discussions of taste, but the ideas of enigma, seduction, aura etc.

Well, what counts to whom? I tend to think of this from my students' perspective, and am always wary of the sorts of shaming that go on in classrooms, from junior high school on, where poetry is concerned. And remember, what I object to is the obligation-to-be-seduced (there's probably a word for that in German), as opposed to the project of enigmatic seduction itself (for which I swoon with the best of them).

Surely you don’t have a problem with the poem’s surface (whether or not it looks enigmatic or mysterious) seducing the reader! After all, much of your critical project involves poetry in relation to erotics, pleasure and seduction.
That's right--I like to be seduced, and often am: by Montale, by Howe (sometimes), by Jorie Graham (in three of her books), and (among many others), by some of your own works, you rascal, you! Again, my objection is to the idea that we "ought" to be seduced by any enigmatic surface, and that if we're not, it's because we're too cheap and easy, to distracted and lazy, to fall under the poem's spell. And, of course, I'm wary of the notion that only enigmas are seductive. Graham talks about "the whole seduction," at one point, and she includes narrative, coherent speakers, and other mainstream tricks of the trade in that category (of which she's wary, natch--but she uses them).

As for mystery, enigma, aura and so on, Mike’s points about the degree of mystery in a poem, again, are well taken. Besides, what’s wrong with “gnosis for agnostics”? I love that phrase! In some respects, it sums up why I read (and write) poetry.
I thought you'd like that phrase. Borrow at will. But let's not kid ourselves that what we're talking about here is really a gnosis, a saving knowledge. It's the feeling of gnosis, an everything-but-salvation that we get from poetry; it is "like what we imagine knowledge to be," as Elizabeth Bishop says ("At the Fishhouses"). Or, better, it is as much gnosis as you can have and still be agnostic--a gnosis that gells, but doesn't crystalize into a "faith"? Hmm... This I need to think about more, with the help of Mark's post on "The Pleasures of What's Difficult" tomorrow. My sense, though, is that what we both like isn't a "spilled religion" so much as it is a nostalgia for...not religion, really, but a childhood faith in language, in magic, in the magic of language, and so on. Remember that the 19th-century split where this begins derives, in part, from the astonishing success of science and technology, which is to say of empiricism and logic as the discourse of power (and of money). Think of all the technology that makes this exchange, here, now, on this blog, possible! Not one jot or tittle of it derives from the magic of language; not one byte was bitten off and chewed by the mystic mouth of "spirituality"; not one flicker of your screen derives from "aura." And, pace Spicer, if anyone ever actually makes contact with Martians, it won't be a poet.

We're nostalgic for the Old Speech, really, aren't we? For a world where saying makes it so. When we speak of the "spiritual," don't we really mean a set of moods (reverence, anticipation, intensity, importance, all seasoned with a dash of negative capability) that we associate with wizards and magic and fairy tales, with glamour, spell, and charm, and only secondarily (as adults) with religion--and that, generally for small reason, by the way. (Think of all those fin-de-siecle writers dreamy over a Catholicism they knew next to nothing about, except that it had "mysteries.") Panis envy, let's call it. (Thinking here of that marvelous "Penis angelicus" scene in When Henry Met Trudy.) Northrop Frye on "Riddles and Charms" is probably relevant here, but alas, I don't have it at hand, and no matter how hard I wave my wand and shout "accio Northrop!" it doesn't seem to budge...

I don't know anything about Clark Coolidge's "spirituality," but old Jack Kerouac, from whom he learned that improvisitory "bop prosody," was an ex-altar boy who knew quite well that he was dealing with matters of spiritual possession, the Spirit / Void blowing through him, and the like; matters he couldn't or wouldn't find at Church anymore, for a variety of reasons. Whatever the part of the brain that still craves oracles loves this sort of poetry, no? Except, perhaps, when we come to someone disjunctive-but-playful, like Charles Bernstein, who is anything but oracular. (Hmm... Let's get back to that.)

It’s a difficult distinction to make, but I would argue that we need to look at enigmatic or obscure work and try to decide if it’s mystery—or mystification. I won’t name names, but some of the “second generation” or post-language poets seem to have fallen into this trap, and the great lines from Oppen that Mike quotes about mistaking a gesture for a style definitely come into play.

Not just the "second generation," Norman. Sturgeon's Law applies: 94% of everything is bullshit. But my students hate, I think--heck, I hate--the feeling that I'm not allowed to decide which is which; that I'm obliged to pull the wool over my own eyes, for social reasons or otherwise.

Two more points, since I don’t want to appear longwinded. Like Michael P.,
I’m no fan of Forche, but it’s less a question of subtlety or mystery or the
play of the signfier than of a kind of tourism or voyeurism in some of her work.
I’m not convinced by the rhetoric or the ostensible urgency. The
self-consciousness or questioning that one finds in Celan, in Oppen, and in some
of Palmer’s own work (like Sun) strikes me as a lot smarter and more moving.

I hear this a lot, but it's often from people who haven't re-read the Forche in a while. The Country Between Us is a remarkably self-conscious, self-critical, even self-excoriating book; it includes several speakers (other than Forche) who take the reporter-poet to task in cogent, bitter, complicated ways. I don't think the final poem in the collection holds up as it might, but up through then, I think it's a better book than Palmer makes out--and to be honest, I catch a whiff of sour grapes in his remarks.

As for the other poets you mention (Kooser, Oliver et al), it’s not that I
dismiss the direct approach and opt all the time for enigma. I love Reznikoff,
Harvey Shapiro, William Bronk. It’s simply a question of how one handles the

Isn't it always, when it comes to seduction? (Sorry, I couldn't resist.)

Finally, back to spiritual elites—and this leads us to your other blog. The best defense I have ever seen for this concept is that wonderful book you’ve told us about, From Jerusalem to the Edge of Heaven. Look at how Elon distinguishes
between mediating and creative elites among the rabbis. He clearly aligns the
latter with artistic production. I’m not sure the analogy could hold up
historically, but his presentation is very suggestive in regard to many of the
issues we’re confronting here.

This I'll have to take up another day--but as I leave, this parting shot: there's a world of difference between "creative elites" (what Mark, at Culture Industry, calls "word elites," or something like that) and "spiritual elites." The latter, to my mind, suggests some actual goodness in this world; the former can be as amoral as you please (and as the rabbis of Pumbadita often were, to Elon, lo?).

Hmm! All this gives a new meaning to Ogden Nash's immortal couplet: "Purity / is obscurity." On which note, I'm off--more soon, in response to St. Mark--E