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.



deanna said...

I'm glad that you refer to Eliot's "Lovesong...". I love teaching that poem. Do I dare disturb the universe? is exactly what we ask ourselves as high school teachers wherein we might consider teaching a more difficult poem. My experience, is that once broken down for the students on a level all their own, they do get it. I tell them to delay the intimidation factor, that the poem is about a guy who doesn't "have much game". Then, we get into the more complex from there, however daunted by the nagging testing requirements that say we need to throw in the literary terms, the rhyme scheme etc, etc.

Nan Cohen said...

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.

Norman Finkelstein said...


Eric, the Howe passage is a good example of the sort of poetic effects we've been discussing. Since you ask "What are the rhetorical tricks, the gestures of language, that raise those curtains of arcana?," here's what I've come up with in regard to the quote, certainly a partial list that could be tweaked in various ways:

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; one sees it used to great effect in Palmer's poetry too. Of course, I would never think of trying it in my poems.