Friday, October 14, 2005

Friday again. So soon? This time last week I was here, at the computer, but far from the blogging crowd. Wrote for 8 hours straight, more or less, as I conjured a Summer Research Grant Application out of Lapsang Souchong, stale corn muffins, and a Will to Funding. Worth it just to feel no pain in my wrists at the end. Whether or not the powers that be will pay me to write my next-but-one Parnassus essay--working title "Xenophile's Paradox"--that just made my day.

Then, as you know, I was a-grading. 'Nuff said. I should be back in the traces with a second batch of papers today, these from my Romance Novel class, but a man has his needs, as all-too-manly Brandon likes to say in The Flame and the Flower, and one of those is to get online and write!

A number of recent posts by Mark on the topic of Annotation and its Discontents. ("Unfortunately pedagogical" he calls them, though I'm not sure why.) I've had the pleasure, recently, of working more and more in classrooms with live computer links to the web. Ad hoc searching has become part of my own pedagogical practice: indeed, I couldn't have taught my seminar on A. S. Byatt's Possession last winter without it. Over and over we hit phrases and allusions we simply had to look up--in fact, the whole point of the course was to teach my students what it felt like to read a book using your ignorance, letting it spark investigation.

Did we use Google? Yup, many times, even though (as Mark writes) "Searching Google for a piece of information is rather like trying to find the one right book in a poorly-organized but massive second-hand bookstore, where if you’re looking for something on (say) Kaballah, you’re more likely to find a brochure from the Kaballah Centre™ than one of Gershom Scholem’s magisterial studies." It helped that we were usually searching out something VERY specific, like a line of verse or a plot summary of Book 6 of the Aeneid. And it helped that our investigations on-line were meant to be provocative, not conclusive. Those were leads to follow for next week, not necessarily answers to our questions. (Like Elmer Fudd, we were hunting wabbits for sport, not for nourishment.)

Far more useful this quarter, as an in-class on-line resource, has been the OED, however. My graduate students--ahem, let me say that again, with feeling: my graduate students--aren't nearly as quick to look words up as they ought to be. (Gracious, ain't he?) In the last few weeks we've stopped our discussions of "Wild Nights" to look up "moor" and of "The Latest Freed Man," by Stevens, to root out "doctor" and "doctrine," always with the most delicious results. (Gee, maybe the "latest freed man" isn't an MD after all!)

Now as I look back on those moments, this much is clear: the pleasure of each--the pedagogical pleasure and the readerly one--would have been ruined had the poem been annotated in advance. It's not that I don't trust those handy dandy footnotes in the Norton, although I've found some howlers in the last few years. But the experience of the poem demanded a mix of knowing and not-knowing, of allure and quick investigation, which the footnote would forestall. Inasmuch as it encourages that sort of active engagement with one's ignorance--I keep thinking of Thoreau here: "How can he remember well his ignorance -- which his growth requires -- who has so often to use his knowledge?"--then a handy Google button may actually turn out quite preferable to a set of footnotes.

You all know, I assume, "Wild Nights." Damn, I love that poem. Look up "moor," if you haven't, the next time you read it, and watch the closing stanza come alive. What about the Stevens I mentioned, "The Latest Freed Man"? It's from Parts of a World, and I must confess, I hadn't read it since graduate school when my MA student brought it to class for our discussions of close reading. A poem to know:

The Latest Freed Man

Tired of the old descriptions of the world,
The latest freed man rose at six and sat
On the edge of his bed. He said,
“I suppose there is
A doctrine to this landscape. Yet, having just
Escaped from the truth, the morning is color and mist,
Which is enough: the moment’s rain and sea,
The moment’s sun (the strong man vaguely seen),
Overtaking the doctrine of this landscape. Of him
And of his works, I am sure. He bathes in the mist
Like a man without a doctrine. The light he gives—
It is how he gives his light. It is how he shines,
Rising upon the doctors in their beds
And on their beds . . . .”
And so the freed man said.
It was how the sun came shining into his room:
To be without a description of to be,
For a moment on rising, at the edge of the bed, to be,
To have the ant of the self changed to an ox
With its organic boomings, to be changed
From a doctor into an ox, before standing up,
To know that the change and that the ox-like struggle
Come from the strength that is the strength of the sun,
Whether it comes directly or from the sun.
It was how he was free. It was how his freedom came.
It was being without description, being an ox.
It was the importance of the trees outdoors,
The freshness of the oak-leaves, not so much
That they were oak-leaves, as the way they looked.
It was everything being more real, himself
At the centre of reality, seeing it.
It was everything bulging and blazing and big in itself,
The blue of the rug, the portrait of Vidal,
Qui fait fi des joliesses banales, the chairs.

(Did we google ol' Vidal there? You bet your sweet lycanthropy we did. Was anything we found particularly interesting? No, no--you go look yourself, and let me know!)


Paul Sweeney said...

Just a note to say that I picked up on your comments on Dos Madras press and am putting in an order for a few of their books. They seem to be very nice people indeed.

Anonymous said...

Portrait of Sebastia Junyer-Vidal, Pablo Picasso