Friday, July 01, 2005

NEH Teaching Tips: A Koch-tail of Quotations and Advice

All of these, below, either from or in response to Kenneth Koch's Making Your Own Days: The Pleasures of Reading and Writing Poetry.

“A poem is an experience and not a description of an experience" (115).

When reading poetry--as in many, many other things--pleasure comes before understanding; enjoyment leads to intellectual knowledge.

As you read, note and describe (reflect on, identify) the poem’s immediate satisfactions—they’ll be different for each sort of poem. Those immediate satisfactions are as much what the poem’s about, what the poem does, as any paraphrasable content, so you need to attend to them just as closely, analyze them as mechanisms of delight.

What sort of suspense or unfolding of plot are we dealing with?

What is this speaker like (i.e., who am I like as I say this)?

Is there a pleasure in precision? In mystery?

If pleasures of sound: what sort of sound-pleasure are we talking about? Repetition and variation in sound, especially the use of repeated sounds (alliteration, assonance, consonance, rhyme); Also changes in typical sounds as the poem goes on (or typical rhythms, smoothness to choppiness, bounciness to slow progress, etc.)

Are there pleasures of diction or clashes in diction? (Think of Keats's “lone splendour hung aloft the night”--the contrast between "splendour" and "hung" is delightful, and between "hung" and "aloft.")

If other “inclinations of poetry language” on display—apostrophe, metaphor, simile, boast, wordplay, juxtaposition, wordplay—what sort of fun do I get to have with each as it occurs?

(To answer this, you have to “unpack” it, natch.)

A poem more or less tells its readers how to read it, what questions to ask.

If the poem is difficult, pin down what sort of difficulty we’re dealing with, and use that as a means to pleasure.

If you don’t have to “get it,” or all of it, right away, you can turn difficulty into play, and you can watch for when difficulty begins to resolve (which would be a section shift in the poem).

Remember: poems tend to act out whatever they’re about; if there are moments of difficulty or clumsiness or mystery, those are probably difficult or clumsy or mysterious places / emotions / ideas that the poem is dealing with.

Respect the poem. Respect your own response, even if it's an uncertain or puzzled one. Sometimes understanding a poem depends on going through the uncertainty that the poem offers as it goes, as the speaker (you) work things through or figure them out.

From Koch on "Reading":

“Art seems to be constructed so as to give us experiences, and understanding, by means of the pleasure it gives us. Intellectual understanding is one of the pleasures, but, in a poem, for example, so are the repeated sounds of “Tyger! Tyger!,” the very fact of talking to a tiger, the fact that night is turned into a forest and so on” (110).

“Common mistaken ideas about how to read poetry include the Hidden Meaning assumption, which directs one to more or less ignore the surface of the poem in a quest for some elusive and momentous significance that the poet has hidden amid the words and music. […] It’s not the nature of poems to be clues, or collections of clues, so to read them as if they were is not to properly experience them, thus to be lost. […] A poem may turn out to be a deep and complex experience, but the experience begins by responding to the language of poetry in front of you, not by detective work that puts that response aside” (111).

“Understanding comes from going through it all” (118).

“The pleasures of reading a poem come naturally in a certain order…having one experience after another” (119).

“There are some poems in which the difficulty is so much a part of the meaning that the two can’t be separated: the poem can’t be ‘understood’ without its coming close to seeming incomprehensible. […] The struggle to understand to some extent produces in oneself the violent intensity [ES: or other relevant mood, like hesitancy, tenderness] of what’s being said” (121).

Koch calls this a “necessary difficulty” (121): a difficulty in which “understanding this poem depends on the uncertainty gone through as it’s being read; without that, there is no shock at the end, thus not the experience” (122).

“Reading a poem includes knowing and not knowing. Uncertainty, shock, and surprise, as well as music and knowledge, may be a part of what the reader gets” (123).

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