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!

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