Home from a haircut, I stopped by the computer for a moment to check my email before heading off to the market--and there it was, waiting in my inbox, the sweetest comment (forwarded from here): "Update! (please)."
How can I resist?
My plans to "blog my classes" haven't panned out yet, as you can tell. It may take another week or two to get a rhythm here; frankly, last week I was in a state of panic over the new courses, trying to scrabble the syllabi together; and this week, on a crazy, over-caffeinated high over being back in the classroom in three very fun classes. Let's see: by way of update, then, what HAVE I been up to?
In my Reading Poetry class, as I said a few posts back, we started off with Matthews' "A Major Work." I've been mulling the poem over ever since, not least because its first stanza sums up Zukofsky's three main categories of poetical pleasure--"the test of poetry is the range of pleasures it affords as sight, sound, and intellection"--and then adds the fourth, which I've called a "pleasure of character," too. Reading (intellection), seeing, hearing, and loving (moving out of yourself, deploying your sympathetic imagination, that sort of thing): that could frame a class, or the opening chapter of a book, come to think of it. The other thought that haunts me, which I haven't returned to in class, has to do with the final verb of the poem: "the great sloth heart may move." That "movement" makes me think of metaphor, which is a mode of "carrying across" or (to break down the etymologies) meta-("sharing, action in common, pursuit, quest, and, above all, change of place, order, condition, or nature") plus carrying or transfer. Metaphor moves, puts things in motion, etc. As does love.
We hit the issue of metaphor again yesterday--I'm skipping the second day, the Mary Oliver day, for the moment--when reading "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night." Hmm... Let me backtrack a minute.
My thought was to start the class with a couple of days on poems that divide nicely into sections, so that we could get up to speed, collectively, on how to "divide and conquer" a poem. (I posted at length on the "divide and conquer" approach last spring--you can search it with the Google link above.) Thus, in the Mary Oliver, we tugged a little to see what sections it would split into, and then found the repetitions and variations that held the poem together: the paired adjectives, for example, that apply to the grasshopper's eyes ("enormous and complicated"), and the speaker's sense of herself ("idle and blessed"), and then, with an additional term, to the "you" the poem addressses: "Your one wild and precious life"). We also attended to the structural logic of the piece: that is, to what motivates each turning point and transition.
After about 45 minutes on the Oliver, we turned to "They Flee From Me," which also works nicely as a "poem in sections." (Better than the Oliver, probably, but I've taught it many, many times before and wanted a change!) This one divvies up by stanzas, and gives you the chance to see the speaker "change his tune," as I put it in class, at each transition: the cocky boasts of the first stanza, where the time frames are evenly split between past & present and the women are plural and implicitly like animals, eating from his hand; the wistful erotic reminiscence of the second stanza, where it's all in the past, and all about one woman, and she catches him and gives him a punning animal name ("Dear heart," with a pun on "hart," natch); the spite & linguistic collapse of the third, which clings briefly to the past ("it was no dream; I lay broad waking") and then gives up and joins the present, unable to muster a single memorable figure or elegant phrase. Good stuff, and a nice reminder for the students that not every speaker is as endlessly sincere as Oliver's!
(I'd meant to follow that last bit up with "The Road Less Travelled," but ran out of time. I'm used to my 3-hour seminar from the summer, and the 90 minute class session--80 minutes by the time the roll gets called--leaves me gasping, always.)
So, yesterday, to wrap up the "poems in sections" unit, we did "Adam's Curse" and the Dylan Thomas. Just briefly, for the moment, I'll say that teaching the Thomas reminded me that most of my students don't have any sense, really, of how to "unpack" a metaphor. They guess and fudge when you ask them to tease out what a phrase like "because their words had forked no lightning" or "how bright / Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay" might mean. I'm always reluctant to spend time on such things in class, except when I can frame them historically, in terms of the various ways various periods and poetics have treated the use of figurative language. But I think I need a few good exercises for outside of class to get the students more comfortable, precise, and confident when they tangle with a highly figurative passage.
WHICH I will post here, along with much else, sooner than this came, and more regularly. Really. I promise. But for now, I must, must, must go shopping, or the pre-Sabbath crowds will strip the shelves before me!