Monday, June 27, 2005

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.

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