Thursday, December 07, 2006

Hi, Bob!

Bob Archambeau, of the Samizdat Blog, has joined our pleasure party.

(Bob! You may actually get me to join the Midwest MLA if you're going to talk there with any regularity, especially on poetry in Chicago. I'd love to meet some time if you're in the city; give me a holler at DePaul when you next head into town. I'll buy the drinks if you'll give me a badass picture next time. Rumor has it I look like Edward Norton, Patrick Dempsey, or an aging, Yiddishe Fabio.)

I like Bob's observation that "something like Language Poetry isn't necessarily "difficult" to its primary readership: other language poets and the profs who swarm around them"; that's one of the reasons I don't love the term "difficult," although I'm not sure what adjective to put in to pinch-run for it. ("Vexing"? As in Mrs. Bennett's "you take delight in vexing me!" No, probably not. But isn't it pretty to think so?) I'm equally fond of his skepticism, which shows itself in tone as much as substance: "The otherness of unabsorbable language becomes a kind of homology for the otherness of the Other, and our recognition of it somehow makes us, you know, better." Well said, that! Well said.

On the other hand, I do want to correct him on two small points:

First, I don't actually take an "it's all good, to hell with the hierarchies" position. Rather, I take the self-debunking, self-deflating position that "my aesthetic hierarchies cut no mustard, morally speaking." I'll go to the matresses to defend them, but I won't kid myself that they make me a better person. I'm sorry, folks, but doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with the Deity Formerly Known as El-Shaddai count for me in the moral category; the preferences you show for one kind of art or another generally don't, except in extreme cases. (No, I don't really believe that in my gut, but I don't trust my gut on this. My gut sense is that people like me in their tastes are better than people who are radically different from me, but I know too many fine, fine people--people who are better than I am, by any reasonable standard, who don't like poetry at all.)

Do we really mean, perhaps, that certain kinds of literature invite the exercise of certain moral qualities or habits of character, as though we were acting towards something or in a context that really mattered, morally speaking? They allow or invite us to cultivate patience, curiosity, a taste for ambiguity, all the values of what used to be called a "liberal" education? They beseech us, in the bowels of Christ, to think it possible we may be mistaken? (To quote the butcher Cromwell, whose cannon, Joyce reminds me, were embellished with the slogan "God Is Love.") Mark, Josh, is that what you're getting at, finally?

Second, I completely agree with Bob's wish for "some actual data." I didn't actually "call for a discussion invoking "Barthes, Adorno, Freud, Lacan, even Aristotle"; at least I don't think I did. (Trust me: I'd never call for anything involving Lacan, and my gut says that anyone who would is morally inferior to me. Thank you, gut--that will be all.) That list came from a plea for some new names, new points of reference, and preferably some female ones. I second the call for data, but stand by the wish for women's voices to enter this discussion.

Any debate over pleasure that only involves men is going to be, well, slightly skewed, and will probably miss something. Gut sense be damned; twenty years of marriage tells me that. So: who's up next?


So there I am, cheating on poetry, hanging out at Michelle Buonfiglio's Romance by the Blog when a woman posts a comment asking, inter alia, " Any of you girls read a poem called: 'The Did-you-Come-yets of the Western World'? It's worth looking up. Hilarious."

With a title like that, how could I resist? It's by the contemporary Irish poet Rita Ann Higgins, and goes like this:

The Did-You-Come-Yets of the Western World
(Witch, 1988)

When he says to you:
You look so beautiful
you smell so nice --
how I've missed you --
and did you come yet?

It means nothing,
and he is smaller
than a mouse's fart.

Don't listen to him ...
Go to Annaghdown Pier
with your father's rod.
Don't necessarily hold out
for the biggest one;
oftentimes the biggest ones
are the smallest in the end.

Bring them all home,
but not together.
One by one is the trick;
avoid red herrings and scandal.

Maybe you could take two
on the shortest day of the year.
Time is the cheater here
not you, so don't worry.

Many will bite the usual bait;
they will talk their slippery way
through fine clothes
and expensive perfume,
fishing up your independence.

These are the did-you-come-yets of the western world,
the feather and fin rufflers.
Pity for them they have no wisdom.

Others will bite at any bait.
Maggot, suspender, or dead worm.
Throw them to the sharks.

In time one will crawl
out from under thigh-land.
Although drowning he will say,
"Woman I am terrified, why is this house shaking?"
And you'll know he's the one.

Please Please Me

St. Mark responds at length, God bless him, to my latest post on pleasure. I tried to clarify a couple of things in his comments box, so check them out there; suffice it to say that I think that aesthetic pleasure is more or less morally neutral. I may take a certain moral or ethical pleasure in reading certain kinds of books, say books of "difficult" poetry about Israel and Palestine, but I'm not a better person for enjoying them. I may be a better person for subsequently doing something based on what is found there, but the mere act of reading? That seems self-flattery to me. We can, and do, and no doubt will feel somewhat superior to others because of our taste in poetry, in music, in movies and so on, but I can't see how that superiority is a moral superiority, as a rule.

Anyone with a counter-example? I'm open to persuasion. Am I morally better than someone who likes snuff films? Yes. But am I morally better than someone who likes horror films? War movies? Holiday kitch?

Now, what I meant to get to was Mark's wish list. Sayeth the Preacher:
I think we need a more nuanced, more “thick” description of the experience & the pleasures of anti-absorptive texts than just a foregrounding of language or “speed bumps” in the way of immersion. Those things indeed happen, but a great deal else – varying widely from text to text – happens as well. Josh gestures towards this – & I image he’s doing a lot more than gesturing in his dissertation – but before we can talk intelligently about anti-absorptional writings as being somehow more valuable than something else, we need some sort of encyclopedic tracing of the pleasures of bafflement, allusion both external and internal, dictional shifts, fragmentation, indeterminacy, polysemy, and so forth. (This has probably been written, but hey, I’ve been in a cave writing a biography for last 7 years.)
Has there been such work done? I don't know of it, although I, too, have been "loopless" for a while. If you read this, please tell me, or Mark, where to look! Or, if you'd like to contribute to such an encyclopedic enterprise (you Mark, you Josh, you reading, whoever you are), let me know: we could start a new, collaborative blog of commentary on, what, a single text, teasing out its pleasures, and then move on to another, and another, and another. Let's use this medium, make this happen, and see what develops, shall we?

Back to Mark:
There are fundamental differences between mass market immersive fiction and “difficult” poetry. Yes, we can bring to bear on the former some of the tools useful for the latter, and to interesting effect. But that’s a matter I think of more general literary-critical methodology, rather than things specifically crafted for the sort of poetry Josh is talking about. There are skill sets and there are skill sets, & some of them overlap, & some of them don’t. I may read a romance novel thru the lens of Northrop Frye & Patricia Parker on the classic romance, thru Mulveyan notions of the gaze, & thru various post-Freudian theorizations of the “other” – all ways of resisting “immersion” – but how do those skill sets help me with Susan Howe’s “Bibliography of the King’s Book”?
You're more or less right about this--and, by the way, thanks for the tips (Parker, Mulvey, etc.)! My point, though, was not that the skill sets are identitical, but that they are overlapping and commensurate: both involve active, "creative" reading practices that pursue pleasure not into the book (getting "lost in a good book" by identifying with characters, plot, the dream-world, etc.) but out of the book, by making connections and analogies, searching for patterns, treating the text as a puzzle, and so on. Some of those practices may be at play when I read any text, albeit unconsciously; certain kinds of texts reward them, although they don't require them; others require them in order for us to find any pleasure at all in the reading process. Yes?
I don’t think the pleasure Josh & I (& you too, EMS) take in an anti-absorptive poem really bears much resemblance, aside from the fact that it’s work rewarded – which applies just as well to a crossword puzzle, building a sukkah, or washing the car – to what undergrads in an intro to poetry class feel in working thru the “‘immersive’ first person lyric.”
The first part of this may be true (the lack of resemblance), but I'd object to the idea that every sort of work is the same as every other. A crossword puzzle makes certain demands on me that washing the car does not, and vice-versa. (There's a physical pleasure in the warmth of the day, the stretch of muscles, the shine of the car, with the latter, but none of the mental challenge that the puzzle provides.) Building a sukkah offers a little of both, plus the superadded cultural pleasure of affirming or enacting a Jewish identity: a pleasure sukkah-building shares with reading Norman Finkelstein's Track and teaching my children Jewish jokes, although the mental activities involved are quite different).
Some of the same elements are there (pleasure in the sound of language, pleasure in “decoding” what seems initially unclear, etc.), but there are other faculties being drawn upon, other muscles exercised.
Which are what? Not being snarky there: seriously, I'd love a list, with examples! Mark, Josh, anyone? It's time to get down to cases, methinks.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

More About Pleasure

Josh kindly responds to my post (and Mark's reply). A few thoughts in return:
Eric is absolutely correct when he says, "Don't think that reading immersive fiction is 'passive'; it only feels that way because the skills it takes come so easily to you, have been so naturalized, that you no longer notice you're deploying them!" But doesn't that suggest an argument based on education: that the anti-absorptive requires the development of a new skill set, one that develops one's critical capacity because it at least potentially resists being so "naturalized"?
Yes, I guess that's right. There are a whole lot of skill sets to be learned, and "anti-absorptive" work certainly requires a mess of them. Part of the pleasure in reading such work, then, is the pleasure of using certain skills, perhaps even more so the pleasure of having to stretch a bit, so that one is conscious of using one's skills, which is in fact a pleasure. (Think of the "difficult" work as something like the city in a wonderful song by Jules Holland from the early 1980s, maybe even late '70s: "I love this city like a mischievous cat / 'cause it troubles me enough to make me feel alive.") On the other hand, doesn't this suggest that the pleasure that Josh or Mark takes in an anti-absorptive poem isn't all that different from the pleasure one of my undergraduates takes in, well, just about any poem, even what seems to us an "immersive" free-verse first-person lyric? (It's always remarkable to me how "hard" such work can be as the basic skill sets for reading poetry are being acquired.)

Josh continues:
And wouldn't that be a change in the world, if more people were capable of registering the Other in others and the Other in themselves through cultivating texts that resist "naturalization"? The opposite of the impulse to repeat, "That's just the way it is"? (Cue Bruce Hornsby.)
I guess. But why do you think that texts that "resist 'naturalization'" do that job particularly well? As my e-colleague Laura Vivanco points out in her comment at Teach Me Tonight, those of us who write seriously about popular romance fiction read those texts in an "anti-absorptive" way, although they hardly demand it. Aren't we now really talking about certain sorts of reading skills, rather than (or as much as) about certain sorts of texts? That is to say, can't we just excise the bit about texts from your comment, so that it reads "wouldn't that be a change in the world, if more people were capable of registering the Other in others and the Other in themselves"? Well, yeah--but now we're pretty far from talking about pleasure and poetics, no?

Or am I missing something? Maybe I am. Writes Josh:
It's certainly changed my world. It feels like an ethical opportunity if not an ethical imperative: a chance to enlarge and develop one's moral senses.
I'd like to stand this one on its head, Josh. It seems to me that you're not talking about the ethics of a particular pleasure at this point, but rather the pleasure of acting and thinking ethically. Through essays and other para-poetic work, "anti-absorptive" poets have framed their verse as an ethical / political project. The sensory and aesthetic pleasures it offers, and the intellectual pleasures (of "figuring things out," or simply "figuring") thus have added to them a new, third pleasure: that of doing justly, or developing one's moral sense.

That is, indeed, a powerful pleasure. Think how strongly you and Mark and others want to hold on to it as part of your experience of reading and enjoying anti-absorptive work. But I don't think that only such work allows for such pleasures, even in contemporary poetry, or that those who don't respond to such work with that kind of pleasure are therefore less ethically ept or expansive. I just don't see any evidence for that other, larger claim.

Monday, December 04, 2006

A Recent Favorite

OK, Josh; OK, Mark. You want sex? You want culinary poetics? Here's a poem I like from Sarah Cortez's very fun book How to Undress a Cop. I have no idea how scandalous or offensive it might be to students; to me, it's one of those poems that starts out slow, but ends perfectly, just perfectly:
Late Night Torta

I won't take you
as a lover
unless you eat with me
at my favorite taqueria.

I have to see you
crunch into jalapenos,
smell vinegary comino seeds,
sink teeth into carrot wheels
tasting like fire.

I want to see your nostrils
flare before biting
into a torta. Inhaling
sultry garlic seeped with
tomato inside the meat.
A dark layer of frijoles
cushoning crisp, thin-cut lettuce.
White crema, sassy and rich.

Your lips will redden
from the salsa. Faint sweat
will bead above your moustache.
I will watch the tattoos on your arms
swim above your ungiving muscles
in the bright pink and green lights.

The Virgen on the cash register table
will smile behind
her dark Indian eyes. She has
an angel to lift her
with his wide-flighted wings.
As you will lift me later
with your tongue.

Rejoice in the Lamb?

To historicize our little quarrel over pleasure--to get back past Freud, at least in terms of primary texts, if not in our reading thereof--we might consider the anxieties over pleasure and poetry in Sir Philip Sidney's Apology for Poetry.

I've often returned to an essay on Sidney by Mary Ellen Lamb: "Apologizing for Pleasure in Sidney's Apology for Poetry," which turns out to be available on line now, here.
To Sir Phillip Sidney, Lamb writes, "delight must be justified by instruction, by the way pleasure moves us to virtue," and more specifically to manly virtue. Like many in the English Renaissance, Sidney fears that poetry's appeal to pleasure tout court renders it (as an art), and its readers, and most of all its makers either effeminate or infantile, and possibly both. The roots of this anxiety lie, for Lamb, in the child‑rearing and educational practices of Sidney's cultural moment. Writing at a time when the indulgent, breechless care of upper class boys by female nurses ended when they were 7 to 10 years old, at which point they were abruptly thrust into a world of pants, Latin, self‑control, virility, and thrashings, Sidney links the "simple, sensual pleasures of early childhood" with the "dangerously effeminizing power" of "vernacular fictions or nursery rhymes" (Lamb 501). Such oral, mother‑tongue poetics leave us, write Sidney, "lulled asleep in shady idleness" (123): a state of either child‑like or post‑coital softness that stands opposed, in either case, to the guarded and active stance of "manly accomplishment." Sidney's Apology for Poetry thus marks, the critic concludes, a crucial turning point in "the history of the bourgeois subject": a point at which "anxiety became installed in the very experience of pleasure" for the privileged literate male (515), and where the focus of that anxiety was first located, alas, in the art of poetry.
I wonder whether there are comparable moments of initiation, anxious or otherwise, to be teased out of the partisans of modern and postmodern difficulty. Just a thought.

Pleasure, Continued

Mark, bless him, has joined our little pleasure party:
The question, that is, is why ought I to prefer "anti-absorptive" texts to "immersive" ones? It's in the "ought" that the rub resides, no? for the question of why do I prefer such texts to other sorts of texts ends up boiling down to either a question of biographical taste (Adorno's dreaded "culinary" approach to art) (eg I like late modernist poetry because I have a disposition, nurtured on bales of densely detailed Richard Scarry books and crossword puzzles and so forth, towards the complex and open-ended), or to a Bourdieuesquely-mapped position within the field of production, consumption, & distinction (which, if you're deeply committed to poetry, is a pretty depressing perspective from which to view matters).
Since I rather like both of these approaches--the culinary and the cultural-positioning--I'm a bit puzzled here. What's exactly wrong with them? Isn't the problem simply that neither lets you take pride in liking one thing more than another? They're humbling; they don't let you feel smug or self-approving in your scorn for NASCAR and McRib sandwiches. (I write this as Talking Heads sing "Psycho Killer" on the iPod--back in 1977, I knew how superior I was for liking punk rock, rather than, I don't know, Fleetwood Mac or Bob Seger. But dude, I'm 40-something now; how on earth could I take such distinctions as seriously as I did when I was 14 or 15?)

Mark goes on:
The deus ex machina here is to invoke a political or (which often boils down to the same thing) moral argument: that anti-absorptive work is somehow better for you, or that it somehow works to change the world (not immediately, not directly, not vulgar-Marxistly) by altering the way you or your readers conceive the world.

In my bones I believe that these arguments are more or less right, tho I have yet to see them stated in a way that I find more than temporarily convincing.
In my bones, I believe that these arguments are more or less wrong. I have yet to see a shred of evidence. Show me the money, Mark, Josh, or anyone. Point me to any example of an anti-absorptive work changing the world. (For the better? I assume you mean for the better.) I can think of absorptive works that might have done so. ("Yo Soy Joaquin / I am Joaquin," by Rudolfo "Corky" Gonzalez comes to mind, but it's probably vulgar-Marxist. The romantic erotica published by Kensington Brava comes to mind--the editor of the series is guest blogging today over here, quite delightfully, but it's probably not what Mark or Josh has in mind, either.)
I want to believe wholeheartedly, but I'm still skeptical. And it does ultimately come around to the issue of pleasure: what I want is a convincing account of the pleasure of what's difficult – perhaps analogous to the pleasure I take in a 100-proof habaƱero sauce on top of a plate of black beans & rice, a pleasure that involves two minutes of searing pain & buckets of sweat – an account that won't (disregard that last analogy) fall back upon the culinary, try to convince me that reading My Life is like a good bout of S/M, or preach to me about the virtues of asceticism like the aged Scottish Covenanter penguin in Happy Feet.
Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief!

Mark, it's time that you and I wrote the book on this. I'll bring the flogger, you bring the hot sauce; we'll have us a party. Tell me when you're up for it--there's no one as ready as we are.

(P.S. I'm posting on this topic today over at Teach Me Tonight also, in the hope that some of the folks who read that blog will offer suggestions. Barthes, Adorno, Freud, Lacan, even Aristotle (whose distinction between sensory pleasure and eudaimonia is probably relevant): have you noticed that the critical discourse on this subject is pervasively by men? Something wrong with that, gentlemen. Let's rectify the situation, pronto.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Josh on Pleasure

A few days ago, Josh Corey posted some thoughts on poetry and pleasure to his blog. It's been a long time since I've thought about such matters, hip-deep as I've been in other projects, so let me tangle with these for a while, and see what emerges.

Josh starts by musing on the difference between pleasures offered by fiction and poetry: or, more specifically, the pleasures he finds (takes?) in certain kinds of fiction and certain kinds of poetry. As someone who spends a lot of time working with fiction these days, I take his observations awfully seriously, but I can't bring myself to agree with all of them.
World-immersion is for me the most primordial pleasure of reading fiction—I think of the "vivid, continuous dream" that John Gardner called for—and it's a pleasure diametrically opposed to the Barthesian bliss of language: an imagistic dream virtually requires the disappearance of the language, sheer transparency.
Is this true for me in reading fiction? Yes and no: the fiction I read most, which is genre fiction, offers me "world-immersion," but I don't know that I'm ever entirely unaware of the language as such. I know, feel, taste an author's style at all times, even when lost in a book; I'd know a paragraph of Andre Norton from a paragraph of Asimov, and either from Ellison (Harlan or Ralph) in an instant, which suggests to me that this "disappearance of the language" is a critical fiction, at least for me. The same, by the way, is true for romance fiction: I know, reading Pam Rosenthal, that I'm not reading Eloisa James, although I'm not sure (yet) whether I know Eloisa James from Julia Quinn by sentence-to-sentence features of style rather than the differences found in larger units: the paragraph, the chapter, the plot device.

Back to Josh, on that pleasure of the "imagistic dream":
But it's also a distinctly bodily pleasure, if only in the negative sense: one morning, groggy from my own dreams, I picked up Empire Falls and immediately fell into the story, my eyes moving rapidly back and forth as though I were still in REM sleep, ignoring my system's cries for the usual morning dose of coffee. If dreams are, as many believe, a means of absorbing stimuli so as to keep you from waking up, then reading immersive fiction works similarly on me, so that I forget to eat or go to the bathroom or even to move my limbs. That's why such fiction is the best tonic for flying on airplanes: for several years I flew without discomfort by reading and rereading the Aubrey-Maturin novels. When I do notice the language in a book like Russo's, it's generally an infelicity, a speed bump: an ambiguous pronoun, a clumsy simile, which I'm sure the author would revise if he could so as to go back into the dream.
Now, I don't pretend to know anything about dreams, let alone to believe anything about them. I'll leave that to the scientists of sleep, who may or may not know anything these days either. (I heard something on the radio recently about dreams as test-patterns, in a sense: the brain checking to see whether all systems were ready to return to active duty. Interesting, but probably irrelevant.) What strikes me here is Josh's final point, about noticing language, because I've hit a few of those speed bumps recently. To his list, I'd add typos: to wit, a wonderful faux pas in Eloisa James's Pleasure for Pleasure, which I hit yesterday afternoon. Speaking of a horse, the narrator remarks that the animal had "won her heart." Clearly, from context, this was meant to say the horse had "won her heat" (in the race), but the power of context is such that the proofreader missed it. ("Won her heart" makes such perfect sense as a phrase in a romance novel, who would spot it?)

Such anti-absorptive moments, to use Charles Bernstein's terms, can be annoying, as they are in student papers, but they can also be charming, as in that case, adding a little extra soupcon of
pleasure all their own. One wants to call them "accidentals," as in music, somehow.

Back to Josh, who's about to draw some distinctions:
All this is antithetical to the pleasures I seek from poetry, or from fiction that foregrounds the language through the beauty or ugliness of its sentences. Most readers (on airplanes or elsewhere) are after the infantilizing dream-state, and yet I can't blame others or myself for wanting to be nurtured by certain reading experiences rather than pricked into greater consciousness. A healthy diet, so to speak, probably requires both.
Excuse me? Josh? Where did that "infantilizing" bit come from? I know you're borrowing "dream-state" from your earlier comparison, but what makes dreams infantile? What makes being lost in a book "nurturing"? There's a strange anxiety at work here--and dude, I don't know you well enough to get into that bit about being "pricked." No...that's a cheap shot... but I am struck by how rapidly Josh falls into a set of worries at least as old as Sir Philip Sidney's "Apology for Poetry," in which Sir P objects to the notion that poesy leaves us "lulled to sleep in shady idleness."

To Josh, then, certain pleasures are infantalizing because they nurture us, while others goad us into consciousness. By extension, those in the second set are not nurturing, but what? Provocative? Abusive? Strenuous? Challenging? (But sometimes to nurture you have to challenge, no?) In any case, they are what spur us into adulthood, evidently: into the world of breeches and thrashings and consciousness.

Josh, of course, is smart enough to hear his own rhetoric:
But isn't the moral content that creeps into my language here interesting? Immersive fiction as trans-fats, innovative writing as leafy greens.
Well, they do say that we learn to appreciate bitter tastes later than sweet ones. Immersive fiction is a chocolate milk-shake; innovative writing is Campari? But let's push that a little, sir: we love sweets and fats because we've evolved to crave them. Is part of the moral resistance here the shame of our own biological inclination--older, deeper than our conscious selves--to love narrative? Is the "infantalizing" part of it the way it reminds us of our childhood itch for someone to tell me a story?
I am loath to become a scold, urging children to read Language poetry because it's good for you. Is the pleasure of anti-absorptive writing simply the masochistic pleasure of self-denial, of anorexia? Is it a "higher" pleasure because further from the pleasures of the flesh? And yet the anti-absorptive is closer to the body of language than immersive fiction is: we savor the materiality of phonemes and syntax and sentences, provoked into the kind of apperception that requires us to look up from the book now and then and figure. One type of reading is active and closer to writing; the other is passive and demands our submission—there's a masochism for you.
Block those psycho-sexual metaphors, Josh! They're getting in your way. Don't confuse self-denial (asceticism) with anorexia (a disease); they're no more similar than tipsiness is to alcoholism. Don't think that reading immersive fiction is "passive"; it only feels that way because the skills it takes come so easily to you, have been so naturalized, that you no longer notice you're deploying them! (If you think I'm wrong, try reading an immersive novel in a foreign language, or watch a barely literate reader struggle through one.) While you're at it, stop mixing up passivity with submission (readers can top from the bottom and bottom from the top as well as anyone), and don't lump either of them together with masochism. (Do you really think it's masochistic to lie back and let yourself be pleased by a text?)

It's ever so tempting, ever since Freud, to reduce all pleasures to the sexual, if only in our metaphors. I suspect we need to resist that temptation in order to draw the sort of precise, useful distinctions Josh (and I) are looking for. Any other vocabularies out there for us to draw on?

Friday, December 01, 2006

At Which Point, Of Course... thinks of this:

Ancient Music

Winter is icummen in,
Lhude sing Goddamm.
Raineth drop and staineth slop,
And how the wind doth ramm!
Sing: Goddamm.

Skiddeth bus and sloppeth us,
An ague hath my ham.
Freezeth river, turneth liver,
Damn you, sing: Goddamm.

Goddamm, Goddamm, 'tis why I am, Goddamm,
So 'gainst the winter's balm.

Sing goddamm, damm, sing Goddamm.
Sing goddamm, sing goddamm, DAMM.


If you'd like to sing along, check out Richard Thompson's setting of "Sumer Is I-Cumin In" here. (At least I think it's there. Let me know if it isn't.)

Off to shovel out the car--

Or this, from Emerson


Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,
Arrives the snow, and, driving o'er the fields,
Seems nowhere to alight: the whited air
Hides hills and woods, the river, and the heaven,
And veils the farmhouse at the garden's end.
The sled and traveler stopped, the courier's feet
Delayed, all friends shut out, the housemates sit
Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed
In a tumultuous privacy of storm.

Come see the northwind's masonry.
Out of an unseen quarry evermore
Furnished with tile, the fierce artificer
Curves his white bastions with projected roof
Round every windward stake, or tree, or door.
Speeding, the myriad-handed, his wild work
So fanciful, so savage, nought cares he
For number or proportion. Mockingly,
On coop or kennel he hangs Parian wreaths;
A swan-like form invests the hidden thorn;
Fills up the farmer's lane from wall to wall,
Maugre the farmer's sighs; and at the gate,
A tapering turret overtops the work.
And when his hours are numbered, and the world
Is all his own, retiring, as he were not,
Leaves, when the sun appears, astonished Art
To mimic in slow structures, stone by stone,
Built in an age, the mad wind's night-work,
The frolic architecture of the snow.

--R. W. Emerson

It's here.

Though winter is represented in the almanac as an old man, facing the wind and sleet, and drawing his cloak about him, we rather think of him as a merry wood-chopper, and warm-blooded youth, as blithe as summer. The unexplored grandeur of the storm keeps up the spirits of the traveller. It does not trifle with us, but has a sweet earnestness. In winter we lead a more inward life. Our hearts are warm and cheery, like cottages under drifts, whose windows and doors are half concealed, but from whose chimneys the smoke cheerfully ascends. The imprisoning drifts increase the sense of comfort which the house affords, and in the coldest days we are content to sit over the hearth and see the sky through the chimney top, enjoying the quiet and serene life that may be had in a warm corner by the chimney side, or feeling our pulse by listening to the low of cattle in the street, or the sound of the flail in distant barns all the long afternoon. No doubt a skillful physician could determine our health by observing how these simple and natural sounds affected us. We enjoy now, not an oriental, but a boreal leisure, around warm stoves and fire-places, and watch the shadow of motes in the sunbeams.

Sometimes our fate grows too homely and familiarly serious ever to be cured. Consider how for three months the human destiny is wrapped in furs. The good Hebrew revelation takes no cognizance of all this cheerful snow. Is there no religion for the temperate and frigid zones? We know of no scripture which records the pure benignity of the gods on a New England winter night. Their praises have never been sung, only their wrath deprecated. The best scripture, after all, records but a meagre faith. Its saints live reserved and austere. Let a brave devout man spend the year in the woods of Maine or Labrador, and see if the Hebrew scriptures speak adequately of his condition and experience, from the setting in of winter to the breaking up of the ice.

Now commences the long winter evening around the farmer’s hearth, when the thoughts of the indwellers travel far abroad, and men are by nature and necessity charitable and liberal to all creatures. Now is the happy resistance to cold, when the farmer reaps his reward, and thinks of his preparedness for winter, and through the glittering panes, sees with equanimity “the mansion of the northern bear,” for now the storm is over,

“The full ethereal round,
Infinite worlds disclosing to the view,
Shines out intensely keen; and all one cope
Of starry glitter glows from pole to pole.”

Thoreau, "A Winter Walk."

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Done with the Compass! Done with the Chart!

Well, actually, done with grading--but it feels so, so good.

I was tough this quarter, tougher than I've been in many a year. I kept myself honest as I graded. When I hit a paper that was just OK--not bad, not horrible, not ghastly, but not inventive, clearly written, or particularly insightful, either--I didn't shrug it off with a B- to keep the student from complaining or, worse, from hating poetry.

I gave it a C.

Then I did something worse.

On the final, I gave a series of objective questions. You know, things like a list of 10 words we looked up in class because their meanings turned out to be crucial to the poems we were reading. I gave the word, I gave the line or phrase, and I asked the students to tell me what the relevant meaning was.


I also asked them to describe a couple of literary schools or movements--just with a sentence or two--and say which poets we studied belonged to them.

Oops again. Did you know that Langston Hughes was a poet of the New York School? His work there evidently paved the way for Wallace Stevens, author of "The Red Wheelbarrow" and other works of the British Romantic movement.

What we say, what they hear. What they read, what they remember. I had students scoring single digits on a 50 point final exam.

Now, I don't know about your department, but mine has been under pressure recently to foster an "atmosphere of rigor" in classes. I'd like to say that I gave those grades and asked those questions to put a whiff of rigor--smells like teen dispiritedness--into my students' nostrils. But mostly I did it to live with myself for the next 25 years, teaching this course, facing these students. I need to be a hard-ass for a while.

Maybe my students feel betrayed this week, as though Captain Stubing suddently turned into Captain Ahab when exam week rolled around. Next quarter, I'm going to tell them on day one that I will, if need be, give a third of them A's, a third of them B's, and a third of them C's. But as God is my witness, I told the folks that didn't come to class, or who came and sat there without taking notes, or taking part, or taking the time to read the text, that the final was going to get them, and it did, just like the Kraken.

As for the 9 students who got an A from me this time?

Congratulations, kids. You earned it. And I can honestly say--not that I would ever, ever lie about such things, natch--that I hope I'll see you in a class again.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Ammons on Andrew Sullivan's Blog

Of all poets, A. R. Ammons shows up on Andrew Sullivan's blog today: "Corson's Inlet," as illustration, I suppose, of the "conservatism of doubt" that Sullivan champions. I'll take Ammons on Sullivan over Bruce Andrews on O'Reilly any day of the week.

Check it out here.

Also, swing by the Chicago Review's on-line anthology of work from their sixty years of publication. I'm tickled to see how often Ronald Johnson shows up as a contributor. Now how do I get Sullivan to read Ron? Hmmmm...

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Hot Fun in the Summer Time

Welcome to November, everyone! And if it's November, that means it's time for the NEH to announce their upcoming round of Summer Seminars and Institutes. Some of these are for college faculty; you can find that list here. For our purposes, the crucial list is here: the seminars and institutes for K-12 Teachers. Each runs from two to six weeks; for each you get paid a stipend of $1,800 (2 weeks), $2,400 (3 weeks), $3,000 (4 weeks), $3,600 (5 weeks), or $4,200 (6 weeks) to cover transportation, living expenses, and so on.

This year, the NEH will sponsor two, yes two seminars for teachers of poetry! The first will be at Harvard, taught by Helen Vendler:

Poetry as a Form of Life, Life as a Form of Poetry
July 2-July 20, 2007 (3 weeks)
Helen Vendler
Harvard University
Information: William Holinger
Harvard Summer School
51 Brattle Street
Cambridge, MA 02138

The second (drum roll please) will be right here at DePaul, taught once again by yours truly:

Say Something Wonderful: Teaching the Pleasures of Poetry
June 25-July 27, 2007 (5 weeks)
Eric Murphy Selinger
Department of English
DePaul University
802 West Belden Ave.
Chicago, IL 60614

And yes, that's a real email address, not just a placeholder!

Keep in mind that you can only apply to one (1) of these two seminars; the NEH has a firm rule about that, and I have seen good teachers barred from participation for a year because they broke it. So write to both addresses for information, decide which city, which length of program, and which content better suits you, and then get busy with your application!

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Mahmoud Darwish

I've noticed poems by Mahmoud Darwish creeping into American anthologies recently. The latest edition of Poetry: an Introduction, for example, boasts one, although not one of his best. (I find all such textbooks intensely depressing these days, about which I must blog when I get the time.) Unless you read the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, however, you might have missed this rather useful piece about the poet, one which might let you teach him alongside Yeats, rather than in the contexts the anthologies tend to suggest. Here it is, then: read, learn, and enjoy!

Palestine as poetry

By Sami Shalom Chetrit

"Tziur kir" ("Mural") by Mahmoud Darwish, translated into Hebrew by Muhammad Hamza Ghanaim, Andalus Publishing, 102 pages, NIS 68

Unlike William Butler Yeats' pronouncement of the death of the romantic Ireland, the romantic Palestine has not died; it is alive and throbbing between the lines of Mahmoud Darwish's poems. And, in fact, for Darwish, as for Yeats, it is becoming more and more romantic as its dream grows more distant. It is becoming a poem, like a distant, lost love.

Darwish loves Yeats and his poetry is very reminiscent of Yeats' work - on the one hand, in the dramatic rhythms, on the other, in the position of the speaker as a simple man, and in its deliberate and striking language. Above all, it is similar to Yeats in the burning need to document and store the collective memory, not in large epics, but rather in simple lines about the experience of the transient individual, who is aware of his weakness and smallness, but also protests strongly and with the last ounce of his strength against destruction itself, and challenges it, as in this breathtaking long poem, "Tziur kir" ("Mural").

Edward Said once said of Darwish's poetry that it is "an epic effort to transform the lyrics of loss into the indefinitely postponed drama of return." In this respect, too, Darwish resembles a Jewish Diaspora poet who, through his words, transforms the hopeless expectation for redemption. He exchanges the poetry of mourning for redemption. Again and again he reinvents a cut-down realm of longings, as in Darwish's words on exile: "Exile is not a geographical situation, I take it with me everywhere, just as I take my homeland, a land of words." It is no wonder then that 25,000 Palestinians and Lebanese gathered in a stadium in Beirut to seek shelter, if only for a brief while, in the shade of the homeland of words that Darwish has created for them.

Unlike the order in which they were originally published in Arabic, "Mural" appeared here in Hebrew after "State of Siege" (also published by Andalus and in Muhammad Hamza Ghanaim's wonderful Hebrew translation, which perhaps can be said to be Arabic in spirit). Therefore my first impulse after reading "Mural" was to go back to "State of Siege" and read it again, this time in the proper order, which is a crucial matter in Darwish's poetry, which Ferial J. Ghazoul, a scholar of Arabic literature, has called "the lyrical diaries of the Palestinian saga." But I came to the rereading of "State of Siege" exhausted psychologically and emotionally worn out, and I believe also with an increased pulse rate and a dry throat, as though someone had turned out all the lights and left only one flashlight deep in the dark, flickering in yellowish light, now almost extinguished and now brightening, like the beeps of a cardiac monitor in an intensive care unit. Like the long poem itself: Now it is harsh and bleak with no way out, not leaving any hope, and now it swells and shakes itself off and then the lack of hope is actually revealed to us as a lack of illusion, and without illusions there are no deceptions.

There remains only the naked and insufferable truth about the finiteness and nothingness of the individual, which for Darwish becomes a tremendous power in face of the minister of death that has decided to attack his heart: "Green is the earth of my poems and exalted / ... The earth of my poem is God's voice at dawn"; and again: "Green, green the earth of my poems and uplifted / ... looking out at me from the valley of my abysses"; or, in an image of eternity: "Green is the earth of my poems, green / on their shoulders poets will lift it / from time into time, as it is, / fertile."

Life and death

Lying in a hospital after complicated cardiac surgery that saved his life (1999), wandering between the worlds, between life and death, Darwish decides to look death in the eye and embarks on a dialogue with it, as a poet, as a representative of the eternal words, as the son of the earth of the exalted poem. He enlists onto his negotiating team the huge eternal powers of the Arabic words, the poets of the Jahaliya (pre-Islamic period) and early Islam.

Thus this fascinating negotiation continues throughout most of the lines of the long poem, at least until the nurse awakens him and tells him of his hallucinations and his speech with death.

In contrast to the stories of "A Thousand and One Nights," which aim to distract the mind from the bitter end until light breaks, Darwish puts all his cards on the table and speaks frankly about "omnipotent death," as he calls it either cynically or fawningly - or both. In language so ironic that it is funny, he amuses death with sincerity in order to draw out the time until he weaves a stratagem for victory, but in the meantime death can wait: "Wait in your own realms, wait till I am done / having a conversation with what I have left of my life." Or else he asks death to wait until he completes his carefully planned funeral arrangements. He does not speak to death out of fear, but he does acknowledge its cruel authority and inundates it with a series of requests, questions and suggestions: "Death, wait till I prepare / my suitcase: toothbrush, soap / electric razor, aftershave and clothes."

And then, when he seems to have snuggled up to death a bit, he sets his trap: He permits himself to give death some advice about hunting, indeed about how to hunt him, and as in an old legend, he promises that a brave friendship will yet spring up between them: "Death, wait / till my clarity of mind returns to me in the spring / till I get back my health / and you will be / a noble hunter who does not shoot a deer at the edge of a pool." Later on he invites Mr. Death to a glass of wine - "Relax a bit" - and softens death up in order to attack it frontally and land the knockout blow: "Death, you have been defeated by art. / You have been defeated by the poetry of Mesopotamia. And the obelisks of Egypt / and the tombs of the pharaohs / and the carvings / in temple stones all these have defeated you / and won. Eternal life has evaded / your ambushes ..."

And indeed, Darwish awakens from his journey in the corridor between here and there and immediately touches and tests the functioning of his body parts to make certain that he has returned from there. He declares himself a victor, not only in this round but in the entire match, and cries out to death for the last time: "I was not, neither alive nor dead. / Only you alone were, only you!"

Eternal journey

In the final third of the long poem Darwish is encouraged and gets a grip on things. Without letting up, he continues, not hallucinating this time, on the journey of the relationship between death and eternity. For this journey he enlists gigantic figures who have already dealt with death and the positive aspects of eternity, from the early Gilgamesh who is disconsolate over the death of his friend Enkidu, through the wise Ecclesiastes who asserts "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity" - or in Darwish's wonderful paraphrase: "And time's / time has come and gone. Zero and void." From there he continues on in the image of Jesus descending from the cross because of his fear of heights ...

But reading Darwish does not end at this level. No reading of such a poet is possible without a national reading, even when he is ostensibly lyrical and personal. Arriving at the end of the poem under review, anyone who doubts this will find Darwish's declaration of independence vis-a-vis those who desire his demise, which every Palestinian can read: "This sea - it is mine / The humid air - mine / The pier and everything on it / of my steps and of my seed - mine / and the old bus stop - mine. And / mine my ghostly double and its masters. And the copper vessels / and the Throne verse in the Koran and the key - are mine / and the guards and the bells - mine." And immediately after this declaration of ownership, in a touching sequence that in Arabic (and in the Hebrew translation, though probably impossible to render in English) is an acrostic of his first name, he sets forth his self-definition: "Mim - orphaned, redundant, tortured / full completion of what has passed / Ha - a garden plot, heart's delight - both missed out, two regrets / Mim - enslaved, the date slated for exile / readied for death, taking risks, stricken with desire / Waw - cession and separation, a rose blooming from inside the vein / loyalty to every baby born, a father's and a mother's hope / Dal - a way and a guide, liberty pampering to blood and tears / a teardrop for what's lost in the twilight."

Mahmoud Darwish chooses his first name as a self-definition, because he knows that Darwish has already become a symbol, and thus, for anyone who still has doubts, the final lines of the poem seal it in reconciled surrender: "And only I / in whom all the reasons to go forth on the way / overflow / I am not mine, I am not mine / I am not mine ..."

This is perhaps the curse of the poet who in his youth had already become the foremost lyricist of the Palestinian struggle. He has often said in interviews that he is definitely committed to the role that his poetry has imposed upon him, but he yearns for the moment when the struggle will be decided and the free Palestine will arise, and then he will allow himself to curse it and leave for somewhere else. This is the true liberation: having a state that you can leave.

Thus, even when Darwish writes such a lyrical poem that is set in an individual's most intimate place - the horror-chest of his fears - even then we will come and demand the parallel, the analogy, the tenor of the metaphor. In effect, like a child who is afraid to reveal his fears, Darwish whistles in the dark, whistling more loudly than the noises that come to scare him.

And thus the entire long poem, which is studded with innumerable stations in the Palestinian-Israeli expanse, and even moves into the first person plural from time to time, becomes the national whistling in the dark of the Israeli occupation, which also is able to offer nothing but death. Thus, in reading "State of Siege," which was written under the Israeli siege of Ramallah in 2002, after reading this exhausting negotiation with death, we again meet the flesh of endless death. This time it is riding a tank and wearing a uniform, and has a face, and even a grandmother and a sweetheart.

Both of these long poems star the same prisoners, guards and jailers; both of them require the same long breath and the patience that sometimes seems to become exhausted and sometimes seems to fill the lungs, until the next round. In a national reading of the long poem, it is impossible not to recall a similar knockout delivered by the representative of immortal words to the representatives of death, on the day he learned that they had wrecked his office in Ramallah in an intentional provocation: "I took the message personally. I know that they are strong and can invade and kill anyone. But they cannot break or occupy my words."

Dr. Sami Shalom Chetrit teaches literature and politics in the film department at Sapir College in the Negev and at UCLA.

If you want to read more Darwish, you might take a look at the translations in Unfortunately, It Was Paradise and The Adam of Two Edens and keep an eye out, this summer, for The Butterfly's Burden, forthcoming from Copper Canyon, which looks to be quite a book.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Souring on Paglia; Sweetness from Swenson

Well, it's that time of the quarter: the Slough of Midterm Despond, when every plan, every class, every poem just sits there. Like that.

Today. For example. I taught. Two poems. By Yeats.

Yeats! You'd think that Yeats would spark some passion in the students--at least I would, since he usually does. Alas, the only Yeats poems Paglia supplies are "The Second Coming" and "Leda and the Swan."

Have you ever noticed how depressing those poems are? I don't know--maybe I just spent too much time pursuing Romantic echoes in the first one, and bored them. (A little Blake, a little Shelley, some fun contrasts with Wordsworth. I thought we were doing fine.) Maybe it's just that Paglia's essays, day after day, are taking the fun of discovery out of the course for the students. (They do seem a little more energized when I just give them a poem and set them questions. Maybe that's how I should run things again next quarter.)

On to Stevens and Williams next week. Maybe that will liven things up.

And now, to sweeten the deal for you, having read this far, a little treat from May Swenson: the closest thing I know to a Georgia O'Keefe painting in a poem:

Blue, but you are Rose, too,
and buttermilk, but with blood
dots showing through.
A little salty your white
nape boy-wide. Glinting hairs
shoot back of your ears' Rose
that tongues like to feel
the maze of, slip into the funnel,
tell a thunder-whisper to.
When I kiss, your eyes' straight
lashes down crisp go like doll's
blond straws. Glazed iris Roses,
your lids unclose to Blue-ringed
targets, their dark sheen-spokes
almost green. I sink in Blue-
black Rose-heart holes until you
blink. Pink lips, the serrate
folds taste smooth, and Rosehip-
round, the center bud I suck.
I milknip your two Blue-skeined
blown Rose beauties, too, to sniff
their berries' blood, up stiff
pink tips. You're white in
patches, only mostly Rose,
buckskin and saltly, speckled
like a sky. I love your spots,
your white neck, Rose, your hair's
wild straw splash, silk spools
for your ears. But where white
spouts out, spills on your brow
to clear eyepools, wheel shafts
of light, Rose, you are Blue.
Ooh! Maybe I should have given my students some answer poems to the Yeats, like Mona Van Duyn's "Leda" poems. Sweeten the deal for them, as I just did for you.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Great Lists for Teachers

Whoever is in charge of the Poetry Foundation's webpage--I should surf over and find out right now, but I'm feeling lazy, and a drip from the sump pump is driving me up the wall, so the sooner I'm out of this basement the better!


As I was saying, whoever is in charge of the Poetry Foundation's webpage has been busy for the last few months, and the page now goes from strength to strength. One addition I've particularly enjoyed, and one quite useful to teachers, is the string of annotated lists of poems they've been soliciting from poets, teachers, professors, and the like, with each title linked to the poem itself in their handy-dandy Archive. A few weeks ago they started up a new set of lists called the "Back to School Survival Guide," and although the titles of the lists seem aimed primarily at students (like Caitlyn Kimball's "Ten Poems To Read When You Get Stuffed in Your Locker" or "Ten Poems to Send the Person You're Crushing On," by Becca Klaver), every one is a Godsend to the teacher who needs something to teach and a lead-in to discussion.

Two lists in particular give you, the teacher, news you can use.

Karen Glenn has compiled a list of "Ten Poems to Get You Through Science Class This Year," and although her annotations are pretty slim--one or two sentences, and sometimes rather pat--I'm very glad to have some poems in mind to help me map the vexed relationship between Poetry and Science for my students. (The best such poem for teachers, I think, is Gary Snyder's "Earrings Dangling and Miles of Desert," which isn't anywhere on line, alas! It's a mix of prose and verse, a praise-poem for a plant (Artemesia) that incorporates serious biology, multicultural mythology, and smart free verse. You can find it in Snyder's Mountains and Rivers Without End, though, and also in the anthology American Poetry Since 1950: Innovators and Outsiders, where you'll also find good science poems by Ronald Johnson.)

The newest and best of the lists, though, just went up this week: "Ten Poems Students Love to Read Out Loud," compiled by the fabulous Chicago teacher Eileen Murphy. (I know Eileen--she was a participant in the first "Say Something Wonderful" summer seminar for schoolteachers--and can testify that she knows what she's talking about in the classroom. If you need more evidence, note that she's also coached the first two Illinois champions in the Poetry Out Loud national recitation competition.)

"Performing a poem can offer pleasures unlike any other experience of literature," Murphy writes by way of introduction. "But approaching a poem as a script for an oral performance demands that students pay attention to aspects of the work that they aren’t used to looking for." Each of the poems she chooses gets a solid paragraph of annotation, each keyed to a single question: "What can attitude tell us?" "What can images tell us?" "What can syntax tell us?" Good stuff. I think I'm the guy who introduced her to a few of these poems, and I'm pleased as punch to see the great use she's making of them in her classroom.

What poems does she choose? Go check them out, and tell me what you think. My own list ("Ten Poems I Love to Teach") should be up in a week or two.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Herbert, "Love (III)"

So what do I want them to notice in George Herbert's "Love (III)"? What to learn from it about how poems work, and how to read them?

Looking in Vendler's book The Poetry of George Herbert--how many years have I had that on my shelf?--I find a few tools that would be worth sharing.

She looks at the poem spatially, tracking the shrinking distance between God and the soul as it goes along. (By the end, I guess, it vanishes altogether, as God is actually ingested.)

She tracks the gradual revelation of the various attributes of Love: first welcoming, then observant, then solicitous, and so on. I like this, too: the poem as sequential and accretive definition.

She tracks as well the hesitations of the speaker: his own self-revelation, or maybe self-transformation. (I'd add to this the way these play out in terms of language--this speaker is constantly adjectival, always describing himself, through the first two stanzas and into the start of the third; then he begins to leave that behind in favor of simple actions, first in the future, and then in the simple past.)

I love her attention to the social comedy of the poem, "like some decorous minuet," as she says (275). She also does good work with how Herbert "reworks his source" (Luke 12:37). He changes crucial details (who comes, who is watching, who changes for the feast) to turn this--
Blessed [are] those servants, whom the lord when he cometh shall find watching: verily I say unto you, that he shall gird himself, and make them to sit down to meat, and will come forth and serve them.
to this:

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey'd Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack'd anything.

"A guest," I answer'd, "worthy to be here";
Love said, "You shall be he."
"I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee."
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
"Who made the eyes but I?"

"Truth, Lord, but I have marr'd them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve."
"And know you not," says Love, "who bore the blame?"
"My dear, then I will serve."
"You must sit down," says Love, "and taste my meat."
So I did sit and eat.

John Donne Paper Topic

Last Thursday we spent all day in ENG 220 (Reading Poetry) on two holy sonnets by Donne: "Batter my heart, three-personed God" and "Thou has made me, and shall thy work decay?" I suspect the students were a little disappointed--they probably wanted to talk about "The Flea," which we only chatted about in passing--but I had a blast, not least because I haven't taught either of these at any length in many years. My favorite moment in the discussion came when we took up the final lines of "Batter my heart," which Paglia (our text, remember) reads rather simplistically. To her, "ravish" is a synonym for "rape"; as my students learned when we put the OED on screen (Lord, I love classrooms with live computer hook-ups!) and read through the various meanings that word had by Donne's time, all of which seemed active in, and relevant to, the poem.

After class, I went back to my office to check what Helen Vendler's Poems, Poets, Poetry does with that sonnet. In the Teacher's Guide, she suggests that you spell out to the class in advance that according to Christian theology--at least the theology Donne knew--God can't simply slap your soul upside the head and force it to accept redemption. That would have helped in class; I'll keep that in mind for next time. She also offers a wonderful paper topic, which I thought I'd pass along to you:
What are the two adjectives in the couplet that tell us what the speaker wants to be? How do these adjectives generate the two chief metaphors (town and bride) of the poem? Track the verbs used in the commands hurled at God by the speaker, and connect them to the two closing verbs ('enthrall', 'ravish') of the couplet: Are they similar or different? What is the playof language between the meanings of the commands and the meanings (look them up in the dictionary) of the two closing verbs?
One thing this assignment would do, I think, is tune the students in to how "wrong" or "off" the initial demands of God in the poem turn out to be. Not just wrong theologically, but wrong given what the speaker "really wants," by the close.

Today, Herbert and Marvell! Anyone out there have any good paper topics, study questions, or classroom approaches to "Love (III)"?

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Once More, With Feeling

I'm teaching two classes this quarter at DePaul: Reading Poetry (ENG 220, mostly for sophomores and juniors) and Teaching Poetry (ENG 475, for MA students, about a third of them currently teachers). I'm doing both of them a little differently this year, in ways that you might find interesting to hear about, whoever you are!

This is my 20th iteration of 220, the Reading Poetry class. To keep myself from simply going through the motions, as Buffy says, I'm using an entirely new class and approach: that is, I've ordered Camille Paglia's Break, Blow, Burn as our text, and we're simply reading it, every poem, every essay, in order, over the course of the quarter. Why, you ask? Because although I'm pretty good at teaching my students to read poems closely, they need a LOT of help learning how to write close readings. Paglia's book has 43 of them, and their job is to take a new poem and write an essay just like one of hers about it. We're going to learn her moves, and to ask, as we face each new text, "What Would Paglia Do?"

In class, on the first full day, we got through one poem. Oops.

Well, to be fair, I did some set up first--maybe too much, but who knows? I spent some time at the start of class talking about what their job was, according to her Introduction; that is, what is it you have to do when writing a "close reading?" According to her intro, it's to write “concise commentaries on poetry that illuminate the text but also give pleasure in themselves as pieces of writing,” which strikes me as pretty good advice, especially when she adds that these commentaries should be “sympathetic redramatizations that try to capture defining gestures and psychological strategies.” Sounds good so far.

What else does she advise? Use a “microscopic, sequential method”--again, sounds good--to “focus the mind, sharpen perception, and refine emotion.” Move line by line or section by section, from start to finish.

Yup. That's what I want them to do. But it gets even better!

As she praises her favorite college professors, she says they were “dramatic, celebratory, and ingeniously associative, bringing everything to bear on the text.” Anything they know--about music, about art, about Buffy, about religion, about the movies--might conceivably help, so bring it on. (Hmm... Let me rephrase that.) In particular, she suggests that we attend to the “hybrid etymology” of English, which is exploited by poets: blunt, Anglo-Saxon concreteness, sleek Norman French urbanity, and polysyllabic Greco-Roman abstraction” Remember: “the best route into poetry is through the dictionary (Emily Dickinson’s bible).”

All good, unremarkable, necessary advice.

I also like her twofold interest in structure (artists are makers; poems are made things, like cabinets or bridges) and in the sacred, primal energies, the sublime. Some students will be hooked by the first, and some by the second; I'm glad to have both on the table for perusal.

The first two poems she explores are Shakespeare sonnets: "That time of year..." and "When in disgrace with Fortune..." I gave my students a wee bit of background on sonnets, probably more than they needed. If you need some to crib from, for your own class, here it is:

Sonnets were invented, as far as we know, by one Giacomo da Lentino, a lawyer or notary in Sicily, around 1230, in the age of Frederick II. Sicily was a multicultural fusion-kingdom at the time: recently conquered by Normans from the Islamic caliphate, and still at least as Muslim a kingdom as a Catholic Italian one. Frederick himself was said to speak nine languages and be literate in seven; he was constantly attacked by the Church in Rome as a heretic for his tolerance of other faiths, his interest in science, and his skeptical rationalism. Sicily a place where merchants and courtiers from across the Mediterranean and beyond, from Baghdad to Norman England, came to trade and exchange ideas.

Da Lentino was trained in Latin, but he decided to invent a new kind of poem in Sicilian, possibly on the model of the vernacular literatures coming out of Spain and Provence at the time. Within five years, courtiers and civil servants in Sicily are writing groups of sonnets; the first sonnet sequences by a single author that we know of are by the Italian poet Guittone d’Arezzo (123?-1294): a 6-sonnet fictional argument between a “donna villana” (low-born woman) and her lover, and a 25-sonnet sequence on the “Art of Love” about courtly love, both written in the early 1260s or so.

About 50 years later, Petrarch writes 317 sonnets (and 49 other poems) in the Rime Sparse, for a woman named Laura. Laura dies of the Black Death in Avignon on April 6, 1348. After her death, Petrarch decides to assemble the sonnets he had written to praise her while she lived, and add others in memory of her.

Petrarch dies in 1374, and these poems in the vernacular are not considered his major work. He’s lauded, becomes the laureate, for his writing in Latin, mostly. In the 15th century, however, his sonnet sequence gets revived as part of an Italian political resurgence (he’s writing in the vernacular, as an Italian poet), and because of the invention and spread of printing after 1470 or so, editions of his Rime Sparse appear with the sonnets all numbered and with introductions explaining that they’re autobiographical, etc., spreading them as a model.

By the mid-1500s, this concept of the autobiographical sonnet sequence enters British, French, and Spanish literature as one of the things you have to have in order to have a first-rate national literature. The French sonnets of Joachim du Bellay, in particular, make nationalist claims for the form (i.e., this is a way to establish a great literature in your vernacular).

First sonnets in English are by Sir Thomas Wyatt (who develops the couplet ending) and Henry Howard, Early of Surrey, who develops the divided octave and change of rhymes after the first quatrain (easier in English!). First English sonnet sequence is Anne Locke’s Meditations of a Penitent Sinner in 1560, but it’s not very influential at first. The Elizabethan sonnet-sequence craze starts thirty years later in 1591 with publication of Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella. By the time Shakespeare writes his, in 1609 or so, they’re already terribly old school.

That led us into Sonnet 73 ("That time of year") and a discussion of how Shakespeare deploys topoi (stock comparisons, part of any sort of Renaissance education in rhetoric) and elaborates them, quatrain by quatrain, to make them fresh or more complex. We had some fun with “yellow leaves, or none, or few”--why in that order, and not "yellow, few, or none"--, a question that Paglia skips almost entirely. We said a little, but not enough, about the jolting final couplet: the etymology of "perceive," and its contrast with the monosyllables around it; the vowel-chiasmus of "perceive--love // love -- leave." Paglia misses, or simply skips, much of the emotional drama of those last two lines, which haunt me quite terribly: you're going to leave me, they say, wrenching us from the point of view we've held for 13 lines (I'm looking at myself, and see what you see) into a point of view that is either purely internal (when I die, you leave me behind, not the other way around) or external, and utterly chilling.

Dang! There's the bell, so to speak. I need to run off and prep Donne. More soon on that, and other things.


Wednesday, September 06, 2006


Still hammering away at the NEH grant proposal. Got some useful feedback today from a variety of sources; now I need to factor it all in, and cut the project narrative by half, or thereabouts. Oh, yes--and get ready to teach tomorrow. Ack!

As a placeholder, then, this seemed appropriate:

Dana Gioia


Money is a kind of poetry.

– Wallace Stevens

Money, the long green,
cash, stash, rhino, jack
or just plain dough.

Chock it up, fork it over,
shell it out. Watch it
burn holes through pockets.

To be made of it! To have it
to burn! Greenbacks, double eagles,
megabucks and Ginnie Maes.

It greases the palm, feathers a nest,
holds heads above water,
makes both ends meet.

Money breeds money.
Gathering interest, compounding daily.
Always in circulation.

Money. You don't know where it's been,
but you put it where your mouth is.
And it talks.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Poetry for Children

As I work on my newest grant application, this time to put together seminars and workshops for middle school teachers, I keep butting up against the limits of my own knowledge about poetry for children. And for adolescents. And for young adults. I have some sense of what "grown-up" poems are out there that might teach well to kids, or at least by loved by them, but my sense of the broad expanse of work that bridges the gap from childhood to college is weaker than I'd like.

Browsing for that Frost quote about poetry as "serious play," I stumbled on this page about "Serious Play: Reading Poetry with Children" from the Academy of American Poets. Here's part of their text:

"Play is what we want to do. Work is what we have to do." said W. H. Auden. Poetry is both of those things. Robert Frost, in fact, defined poetry as "serious play." Poetry is the liveliest use of language, and nobody knows more instinctively how to take delight in that playfulness than children. Surely no parent or educator feels that children must be force-fed Dr. Seuss or Shel Silverstein, or Mother Goose for that matter; children love rhymes, word games, and the magic effects of verse. At the same time, anyone familiar with the techniques pioneered in the 1960s by the poet Kenneth Koch knows that children are equally delighted by more sophisticated poetry when it is presented creatively. It is not an exaggeration to say that all children, at least until adolescence, are natural poets.

The trick is how to translate this energy, once aroused and captured, into the desire to read poetry seriously, to do the intellectual work necessary to gain a basic mastery of the literary art, just as one does, say, with math, biology, or Spanish. There are several crucial components which apply equally to many fields of knowledge: natural affinity, family, school, and community.

It is a simple fact that some children are more drawn to words and literature than others. Sometimes all it takes is the influence of the right person or book at the right moment, to tap something that is set to blossom inside--a love of language, of the sound or meaning of words, of their look on the page. But it is critically important for all children that the right opportunities, the right people, be there when the moment is at hand.

Often the first of these opportunities is the influence of family. How many of us can't remember a song that our parents sung, a book or a poem that was read to us countless times, or a favorite bedtime story? At that intersection of love and language is poetry. Naomi Shihab Nye urges us to "remember the dignity of daily affirmation, whatever one does--the mother speaking to the child is also a poem."

After the home comes the classroom, a frequent stumbling block for poetry. Any subject--even school itself--can be characterized as "liver and onions" by a student who isn't turned on to the excitement of learning. Although many teachers were raised to believe that poetry was an obscure, inaccessible, and unpalatable art, just as many understand its intrinsic value, but want guidance on how to approach it in class: recipes for poetry.

I like that last phrase--but then, I like to cook. And eat. Hmmm... On the other hand, I like liver and onions, too. Maybe I'm not their audience.

Anyway, if you teach younger grades, or if you don't but want to explore the topic, they seem to have a fine list of links to poems, essays, and author pages. I'll spend some time exploring them later today, once I get more work done on the grant proposal. If I find anything really startling, I'll let you know.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Great Pennywhistle Mystery

So on my way to the Great North Woods this summer, I picked up a Generation pennywhistle, key of D, to noodle away on and commune with the loons. Took me longer than I'd like to admit to get a decent sound out of it, but I was determined--and, to be honest, I figured if my son saw me struggling, he'd give it a try just to show up the old man. It was the one on the top there, with the green fipple. (Or is that the chiff? I still haven't learned.) About halfway to the woods, in Stevens' Point, we stopped by a lovely musical instrument store to browse and bargain, and I had a thought: since my son and I were now competing, not only with each other, but with my daughter for the whistle, why not pick up another couple of them for the road?

No sooner thought than done, and we walked out of the store the proud owners of a sweet, smooth-blowing Susato whistle, also in D, which my son seized for his own, and one of those old-fashioned conical Clarkes, with a wooden fipple (or chiff?) and a breathy sound I instantly loved, although it drove my wife rather mad. (Yes, dear, that's an although and not a because.)

Naturally, before we left our little house in the Big Woods, the Susato went missing. Memo to self: black whistle, easy to lose. Next time, leave on ugly sticker, if only to spot the damned thing. The others, though, we should be able to keep an eye on, right?

Well, no. Of course. Now my daughter's wandered off with the original Generation whistle, just when I hanker to try it again, and after an hour's search, I declare it, too, defunct. Damn! And I could have taken it off to school tomorrow, to keep it safe and torment my hallmates, too.

Wistfully whistling on me Clarke, then, let me post a poem: "The Penny Whistle," by Edward Thomas. (A British poet, not an Irish one, but Clarke's an English brand.) And if you see one of my lost friends, do send it along.

The Penny Whistle

The new moon hangs like an ivory bugle
In the naked frosty blue;
And the ghylls of the forest, already blackened
By Winter, are blackened anew.

The brooks that cut up and increase the forest,
As if they had never known
The sun, are roaring with black hollow voices
Betwixt rage and a moan.

But still the caravan-hut by the hollies
Like a kingfisher gleams between:
Round the mossed old hearths of the charcoal-burners
First primroses ask to be seen.

The charcoal-burners are black, but their linen
Blows white on the line;
And white the letter the girl is reading
Under that crescent fine;

And her brother who hides apart in a thicket,
Slowly and surely playing
On a whistle an old nursery melody
Says far more than I am saying.

(There's a penny whistle in Pound's Canto XIV, as I recall, receiving somewhat less pleasant treatment, wielded by "vice-crusaders" in a Boschian inferno. You can look it up.)

Monday, August 21, 2006

Dreaming in Public

Well, I'm back, as I love to say. Back and busy, too--especially where poetry teaching is concerned, and you reading this (whoever you are) can be mighty helpful to me, if you don't mind weighing in.

I am trying to design a series of workshops to be held here in Chicago, with the goal of getting local K-12 teachers (maybe mostly middle and high school teachers) in contact with resources at my university (DePaul) and in the Chicago area. These could be the model for other such programs in other college towns, if they go well, so your dreams are as good as mine.

Now, here's the question.

Speaking from your own experience, your own desires, dreams, etc., and those of your own school, what would be the most useful things these workshops could offer?

One way I could organize them would be around approaches to poetry, for example:

Performance: teaching through recitation and performance analysis

Interdisciplinary Approaches (poetry and music, poetry and history, poetry and visual art, etc.)

Close Reading

Reading and Creative Writing

On the other hand, I've also thought that as teachers, you might find it more helpful to have workshops on particular poets and poems, so that you come away with some immediately importable materials for your own classroom practice.

We could have a series of workshops on famous, regularly-taught poems, for example, with each workshop featuring background on the poem and poet, material on its context, a jointly-done close reading of the poem, maybe something about how it could be performed, etc.

What do you think would be best, most useful, most popular? If you could click your ruby heels together and visit such a workshop, or set of workshops, what would you find?

More soon,