Thursday, September 08, 2005

Back to Classes!

My first day back in class today--first day teaching at all, aside from the NEH seminar, which hardly counts (those were colleagues, not students), since last spring. I felt eager and nervous pulling up to the office this morning, only some of which jitters could be explained by the fact that I hadn't entirely finished either syllabus for either class I was about to teach. Does anyone else out there have such a hard time picking poems, or choosing assignments? Is this a poetry thing, or just a me thing? (Thinking of Harryette Mullen's Muse & Drudge there: "is this a men thing, or a him thing?" Or words to that effect.)

(By the way, if you're the student who ran off, a year or two ago, with my signed copy of Muse & Drudge, I'd love to have it back. No questions asked.)

In the morning, my Romance class--35 students or so, three of whom were men, two of whom are English majors. It's a 200-level "popular literature" class, so the lack of majors doesn't entirely surprise me, but I'll have to adjust my plans a little here and there to respond. My history of the course--how I got interested in Romance fiction, how no one in my department wanted to teach the class, year after year, etc.--was entertaining enough, I think, as was my little sketch of 3rd-4th century Greek romances (erotika pathemata, as Anne Carson teaches me to call them: "erotic sufferings," or "sufferings of desire," played out in plots as extravagant and sentimental as anything in Bertrice Small's capacious Skye O'Malley).

I doubt I can say the same about the last little bit I tried to squeeze in. The rise of companionate marriage and affective individualism in the 17th century, and the concurrent rise of laws restricting or erasing women's property rights at marraige: these proved harder to follow as set-up for the books we're going to read. Maybe I can loop them back in more effectively later. (Both ideas borrowed from Pamela Regis's useful recent Natural History of the Romance Novel, which I plan to draw on a lot in the first couple of weeks of class.) Now it's on to The Boyfriend School, and topic 1: "What is 'Romance,' and why do people say such nasty things about it?" Some good new links on that subject on Jennifer Crusie's website, which I'll draw on in a later post.

In my Reading Poetry class, I spent so much time setting up the class--the new book, new syllabus-in-progress, newly-recovered-from-burnout professor, newly non-systematic approach--that we didn't have a whole lot of time for actual poems, alas! We got through one, ONE poem, in the 90 minute period: this little one by William Matthews:
A Major Work

Poems are hard to read
Pictures are hard to see
Music is hard to hear
And people are hard to love

But whether from brute need
Or divine energy
At last mind eye and ear
And the great sloth heart may move
I framed the discussion in terms of "the poem as life" and "the poem as art"--my version, this latter, of Helen Vendler's "the poem as arranged life," which I find too cumbersome and hard to remember. I like the way that the first stanza gives you a taste of both: that is, it gets you to consider poetry as art (we encounter it like a picture or a piece of music) and then slips you that little left hook about the poem as a surrogate or represented person, after which thought you have to respond somewhat differently.

My favorite moment in the poem, though, has to be the sudden arrival of that "great sloth heart," which reminds me of a wonderful paragraph about reading near the start of Michael Schmidt's Lives of the Poets:

"The best reader needs the seven deadly sins in double measure. Pride makes us equal with specialists and professional critics and impervious to their attacks. Lechery puts us in tune with the varied passions and loves that we encounter. We feel envy when a reader who has gone before preempts our response; this only spurs us on to fresh readings. Anger overwhelms us when injustices occur, and it should be disproportionate: when a poet dies in destitiution or is lost for a generation or a century. We experience covetousness when we encounter poets we are prepared to love but their books are unavailable in the shops, so we covet our friends' libraries or the great private collectins. Gluttony means we will not be satisfied even by a full helping of Spenser or the whole mess of The Excursion; we feed and feed and still ask for more. Finally, dear old sloth has us curled up on a sofa or swinging in a hammock with our books piled around, avoiding the day job and the lover's complaint. These are necessary vices." (11)

Say Amen, somebody! Me, I'm off to get back to work on some Bach for mandolin.

(P.S. The oud countdown has begun...)

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disa said...
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