Wednesday, June 15, 2005

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?

I
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.

II
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!

III
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.

IV
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.

V
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.)

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