Monday, August 01, 2005

NEH Seminar: Vendler's List o' Pleasures

This is the first week in a while that I haven't been teaching, and although I'd meant to spend it curled up in my Big Red Chair with a stack of books and a pitcher of iced coffee, I've ended up on the road, mostly: a prescription to drop off here; a package to mail there; a fat wad of overdue bills to pay off at too many libraries to mention. I'd also meant to join the Charles Olson conversation happening at Mark's blog (and, through him, elsewhere). The Maximus Poems was, itself, a good third of that book-stack. Ah, well. I did read the first poem in the Olson, "I, Maximus of Gloucester, to You," and will write some reactions to it soon. (How does anyone read vast stretches of this book quickly? Mark seems halfway through in a handful of days--I take ages just to process a couple of pages. Maybe, though, it's best read quickly, as Donald Davie says you should read the Cantos: in great, passionate gulps, without coming up for air. Hmmm... We'll see.

In any case, I've been meaning to post this handy Checklist o' Pleasures that I compiled for the NEH seminar from Vendler's Poems, Poets, Poetry textbook. It's from the third chapter in her book; strikes me that it could be dwelt on for some time, and built on, in manner of Woody Allen's dad in Love and Death. ("I have a piece of land... Someday I hope to build on it!" Pulling, then, a foot-square chunk of sod from his coat.)

The List, then, in the order she treats them:

Poems as Pleasure A Checklist from Vendler

--pleasure of recurrence and simple metrical pattern
--pleasures of complex metrical pattern, or of meter playing against rhythm --pleasures of match between sound and sense, rhythm and emotion or idea --in regular form, varying a pattern
--in free verse

--the simple pleasure of sounds that match, w/ various numbers of syllables --more complex pleasure of sameness in difference
--i.e., rhyming monosyllables with polysyllables
--i.e., rhyming different parts of speech
--i.e., rhyming words w/ some meaning-relation (same or opposite) --i.e., rhyming words that are spelled very differently, but w/ same sound

Alliteration, etc.
--same pleasures as in rhyme, but at the start of words

Stanza shape
--pleasure of recognizing some tradition (ballad stanza, ABBA quatrain, sonnet, couplet)
--pleasure of a tour-de-force: i.e., use of a really difficult stanza --pleasure of watching some existing form adapted or given a new twist --pleasure of “fit” between stanza form and inner structure of the poem

--pleasure of match between structure and content (form enacting content) --i.e., of well-used line breaks
--i.e., of torque on syntax or word order

--pleasure of self-referential puns (i.e., references to feet, to lines, to rooms / stanzas)
--pleasure of other sorts of puns
--pleasure of changes in diction or discourse, or echoes from diction to diction

--pleasure of watching a poem “open out” onto broader vistas of myth, theology, cultural reference
--pleasure of “getting it” being part of the poem’s audience (and thus possessing cultural capital?)
--pleasure of watching a seemingly incoherent poem reveal an underlying coherence

--pleasure of seeing ideas or argument compressed into memorable form
--pleasure of shifting kinds of imagery (visual, auditory, tactile, etc.; or from descriptive to metaphoric) in some order or pattern
--pleasure of having your own perceptions sharpened

--pleasure of the game of thrust & parry, or of watching the structure take shape --pleasure of poems answering other poems
--pleasure of watching old arguments presented from new angles of approach (new characters, scenes, speakers, moves, etc.)

--pleasure of the fit or contrast between situation and type of utterance (style, genre, tone
--pleasure of the poet’s subtlety in handling some painful or difficult emotional material (the pleasure of decorum)
--pleasure of unsubtlety, as a poet shifts from figurative or roundabout language to simplicity

--the pleasures of “what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed”
--pleasures of “credible representation” of some powerful feeling, followed by the pleasures of assent: “yes, that’s how it feels; that’s how life is”
--pleasures of finding a vicarious voice: i.e., a poet who speaks for or to you

A New Language
--the pleasure of a poet not sounding like anyone else: the pleasure of distinctiveness

So: what's missing? Or, how can we put these to use? Maybe the Olson will be my test run.

(And if you've read this far, don't forget to sign up for the Say Something Wonderful Poetry Forum, over at Yahoo Groups!)

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