Friday, November 25, 2005

This came in by email over Thanksgiving. My son read it over my shoulder, and pronounced it "one of the funniest poems" he'd ever read. How could I not post it here?

My Teacher Calls Me Sweetie Cakes

My teacher calls me sweetie cakes.
My classmates think it's funny
to hear her call me angel face
or pookie bear or honey.

She calls me precious baby doll.
She calls me pumpkin pie
or doodle bug or honey bunch
or darling butterfly.

My class is so embarassing
I need to find another;
just any class at all
in which the teacher's not my mother.

--Kenn Nesbitt

One brief nit to pick: why does Nesbitt break the line after "at all," and not after "in which," where the meter demands it? I HATE that! Meter is so easy to teach to younglings, but not when the poets won't follow their own rules, no?

(Let the record show: this was delivered to me by email, and the linebreaks may have gotten corrupted en route.)

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Some faves from Norman

This was a comment, but deserves to be above the fold:

"A few of my short faves," writes Norman Finkelstein:

Keats, "La Belle Dame Sans Merci"
--I've never taught that one, I don't think. What does one say about it? Teach it as a ballad? (I hate teaching ballads. Teach me how and why, someone, please!)

Herbert, "Prayer (I)"
--This one I've taught, but not for years. Time to put it back into rotation, maybe?

Herrick, "The Vine"
--Another one I've never tried. What do you do with it?

Shakespeare, "Sonnet XX"
--I'm embarassed to say, I had to check which one that was! It's a weird, gender-bending "master-mistress of my passion" poem. Never taught it. What do you do with it, Norman?

Milton, "On the Late Massacre in Piedmont"
--Tried this once, disastrously, my second or third year of teaching. Again, I'd love to know what one does with it in class to make it sing--

Blake, "The Lamb" and "The Tyger"
--I do the second, not the first. Time to switch or pair them?

Dickinson, "There's a Certain Slant of Light," "Mine by the right of the white election"
--Never tried either!

Williams, "Proletarian Portrait"
--Another one? Damn! I love how little we overlap here. It reminds me how various the field is, even between thoroughly canonical hedgerows. And how little I know, thank God, after only 10 years in the business. I'd had to think I'd exhausted anything already,other than myself.

The Williams is worth reprinting here, I think. Not many folks know it. You can find some scraps of criticism here, too, if need be.

Proletarian Portrait

A big young bareheaded woman
in an apron

Her hair slicked back standing
on the street

One stockinged foot toeing
the sidewalk

Her shoe in her hand. Looking
intently into it

She pulls out the paper insole
to find the nail

That has been hurting her

That's one set of favorites, friends. More, please! Bring 'em on!

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The City Limits

I closed my "Reading Poetry" course this quarter with A. R. Ammons' poem "The City Limits," asking my students to give it a "cold close reading." If you don't know the poem, here it is:

The City Limits

When you consider the radiance, that it does not withhold
itself but pours its abundance without selection into every
nook and cranny not overhung or hidden; when you consider

that birds' bones make no awful noise against the light but
lie low in the light as in a high testimony; when you consider
the radiance, that it will look into the guiltiest

swervings of the weaving heart and bear itself upon them,
not flinching into disguise or darkening; when you consider
the abundance of such resource as illuminates the glow-blue

bodies and gold-skeined wings of flies swarming the dumped
guts of a natural slaughter or the coil of shit and in no
way winces from its storms of generosity; when you consider

that air or vacuum, snow or shale, squid or wolf, rose or lichen,
each is accepted into as much light as it will take, then
the heart moves roomier, the man stands and looks about, the

leaf does not increase itself above the grass, and the dark
work of the deepest cells is of a tune with May bushes
and fear lit by the breadth of such calmly turns to praise.

We started, as I always ask, by dividing the poem into sections: in this case, seven of them, marked by the semi-colons, by the turn from "When..." to "then" in the middle of the penultimate stanza, and then finally the "and" clause that closes the poem. We read it, that is to say, as a three-part core sentence with elaborations: "When you consider the radiance...then the heart moves...and fear...turns to praise."

That's such a simple move (for me), and was so hard, still, for some of my students! Why so hard? I just don't know.

In any case, two things struck me after our discussion.

First, thanks to my two or three visibly Muslim students, I was reminded of just how powerfully Christian the vocabulary of this poem is, even though the poem itself isn't a Christian text. Words like "consider" (as in, "consider the lilies of the field") and "testimony," and a phrase like "make no awful noise" (which rewrites "make a joyful noise"): it's hard to appreciate this poem if you don't hear their scriptural & religious echoes, I think.

Second, this morning I went online to find a version of the poem to cut & past for you, and I hit a half-dozen offers to buy electronic notes to the poem: potted readings, "study guides," and the like. The few I browsed--just the free stuff, the teasers, of course--were pretty dreary stuff. You can consider one of them here , if you have the stomach for such things. Does this poem really get taught as an "environmental" text? I guess if you ignore the part about "the guiltiest
swervings of the weaving heart" you can pull that off, but do we really want to? Would a good follow-up exercise to this poem really entail making an audio collage of statements from local environmental activists? (I kid you not, Dear Reader!)

Anyone out there know the Emerson passage this poem glosses? I don't recall where it is, offhand--maybe in "Nature"?


Some of My Favorite (Short Lyric) Poems to Teach

So what does my own anthology look like--the list of poems I most like to teach in my own "Reading Poetry" class?

(First of an ongoing series of posts)

Sappho, “Fragment 1: Hymn to Aphrodite, in multiple translations (Jim Powell, Anne Carson, Guy Davenport)

Archilochos, "“Some Saian Mountaineer," in Guy Davenport's translation

The Song of Songs, in Ariel & Chana Bloch's translation

Wyatt, “"They Flee From Me”" and "Whoso List to Hunt”"

Donne, "“The Sun Rising”"

Whitman: "“Noiseless Patient Spider”" and "“As I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer"”

Yeats, "Adam's Curse" and "“Easter, 1916”"

Hughes, "“Theme for English B"

Stevens, "“The Snow Man”"

Hayden, "“Those Winter Sundays”"

Clifton, "“Homage to My Hips”"

Johnson, "“Beam 10"” from ARK

To be continued. So: what are yours?

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Help Me, Somebody!

They shadow the upper right-hand corner of my desk: 40 papers from the Romance class, 40 from Reading Poetry, and a larger number than I'd like to have left from Teaching Poetry, my MA class. I feel like Childe Roland, only I built that Dark Tower, & there's no slug-horn in sight.

At which point, I get to musing: why do I have my students write so many close readings? Or, if I want them to write close readings, why do I teach them poems? Shouldn't I find an anthology of essays-on-poems for them to study, if that's what I want them to produce? Is there such a book? I know Camille Paglia has Break, Blow, Burn out now: 44 poems, each explicated, which might presumably work. On the other hand, if I haven't brought myself to read it yet, should I really make my students?

(Parenthetically, I should add that I am deeply, deeply grateful to Paglia. Her prose style plucked me out of the Slough of Cavell back in graduate school, and made me who I am today, prose-wise. Half the jokes I had to comb from my dissertation, en route to press, might have been hers. Maybe I should read this new one, too.)

But I digress. The serious points here are:

1) Teaching "Intro to Poetry" (or "Reading Poetry," or whatever your school wants to call it) may not be an intrinsically frustrating experience--it hasn't always been for me--but

2) Teaching from a huge, overwhelming, over-processed anthology like the Norton seems to depress me, and

3) I don't know what text or anthology to use next time, my 19th or 20th go-round with the class, since

4) I'm not entirely sure WHAT I want to teach my students, although I know pretty well that I don't want to teach them only close reading skills, as I did, mostly, this time.

Maybe it's time to send out a meme. If you had to teach an "Introduction to Poetry" with only, say, 20 poems, which 20 would you choose? Or, if that number is to small, make it 30-60, but no more than 60 poems, tops. (I have 20 class days, and rarely get through more than 3 poems a day.)

Help me, somebody!


Norton Anthology of Poetry: $73
Helen Vendler's Poems, Poets, Poetry: $54
Kenneth Koch's Making Your Own Days: $15
Camille Paglia, Break, Blow, Burn: $13

All of these new, with no discount, of course. Any on-line dealer has them for less.

The new Wadsworth Anthology of Poetry, about which I'll blog quite soon, goes for $57 for the shorter edition, $67 for the longer, and it comes with a nifty CD-ROM. A possibility.

To be continued...

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Loopless, Socratic, Scattered. Not Bad.

I learn from Josh Corey's blog that Collected Poems are now out, or will be soon, from Kenneth Koch and Ted Berrigan. There was a time, ten years ago, when I'd have been on the review-copy list for each of these. I'd have known they were coming, I'd have written about them for the Boston Phoenix or other newspaper (heck, I'd have hustled for a slot in the Times) and I'd have felt simply grand. Instead, I'm out of the loop--"Loopless," as the SNL version of George H.W. Bush used to say.

And I feel about that, what? A little sad, but not terribly so. Hard for me to work myself up about whether poetry is or is not reviewed in newspapers, since I neither read them now, regularly, nor engage in those antenae-rubbing rituals of reference ("Did you see X's piece in the Sunday Times?") that mostly serve to verify one's place in the cultural anthill. I wouldn't mind writing about either of them. In fact, I did a piece on Berrigan and Alice Notley for Parnassus some years ago that I still think does both justice. But it's hard for writing or publishing to give me the immediate rewards that teaching does these days, or even the explicatory thrill of working things through, new things, that I've had in my Romance Fiction and Teaching Poetry classes recently. (We did a collective close reading of Robert Duncan's "Often I am Permitted to Return to a Meadow" two weeks ago--the first time I've ever gone through that poem inch by inch, alone or in company--that practically moved me to tears. I was, of course, wired on Sudafed at the time, but still! I hope someone took notes.)

When I'm feeling grand I tell myself that I've reached a new, Socratic stage in my career: that is, I teach viva voce, in manner of ancient philosophers, rather than through print. In less self-congratulatory moods, I say that I'm just getting lazy and disorganized, putting my writing aside because it's hard and takes time. Both are probably true. Get me through the rest of this three-course quarter, and we'll see what's what, eh?

Currently reading: Something Like Love, Beverly Jenkins
On the earbuds: Nada. Too distracting. I have kids to keep an ear out for today.