Saturday, January 14, 2006

Brief Hiatus

I hate to do this, after just getting back on a roll here, but I need to focus all my writing energies on a couple of essays over the next two weeks. Look for me at the end of January, folks!

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Vendler on Patterns and Shapes

In Chapter 2, "The Poem as Arranged Life," Vendler's textbook gets interesting. No other introduction to poetry I know of has a chapter like this; the tools she offers have revolutionized my own students' reading of poetry, and my own.

I won't say that the chapter reads quickly, or feels revolutionary. Vendler doesn't pull out the rhetorical stops the way, say, Edward Hirsch does in How to Read a Poem...and Fall in Love with Poetry. Instead, in a series of close readings, she shows you how to pay much, much closer attention to any poem than I'd ever known how to pay, and what to do with what you find there.

The chapter begins by talking about "organizational patterns": that is, the various "patterns and shapes" that poems display which organize--and thereby act out--its emotional or ideational content. (Did I just say "ideational"? Help! NOT V's word, and it shouldn't be mind, but let it stand.)

Thus, for example, in Blake's "Infant Sorrow," she asks "what is the main verb in each of these two stanzas?" and discovers that the main verb in the first stanza is physical ("leapt") and the main verb in the second is mental ("thought"). One pattern here is therefore a "division into the physical and the mental," she says, and integrates that observation into her existing take on the poem. She looks at the nouns, and finds a "noun-shape"; looks at the adjectives, and finds an "adjective-shape," and so on. What other textbook gets students to attend to the "successively weaker participial line-beginnings" in a poem, I ask you? And yet, how precise, how "objective" (as students beg, periodically), how revealing such inquiry turns out to be!

Vendler lists a few frequently-deployed shapes for students to look for:

1. simple meaning-contrast
2. word-repetition
3. series, whether similar or broken
4. grammatical contrast

As the chapter goes on, she adds to these "division into stanzas," "spatial" and "temporal" divisions [i.e., where and when each successive part of the poem takes place, if we know], "missing elements" (another version of "broken series," I suppose), repetition and interruption, end-stopped vs. enjambed lines, alternations between abstraction and concrete description, even--shades of Louis Zukofsky!--shifts from "a" to "the" or vice versa as the poem goes on. One highlight for me, this time, was her reading of Shakespeare's Sonnet 60 ("Like as the waves make toward the pebbled shore..."). In it, she points out the three contrasting models of Time's passage that make up the three quatrains of the sonnet: "three mini-poems, three incompatible models of life" (59). This example turns out to be terribly valuable when I teach poems like Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" or Bishop's "One Art."

Sometimes Vendler will toss out a rule of thumb for students to remember, like "repetition is always the sign of the mind scrutinizing what it has just said and either confirming or changing its phrasing as it judges it" (43), and "when lines 'run over,' we are to infer an ongoing rush of thought or feeling" (56). When I read such rules, I veritably itch to find counter-examples--but that's me, the overpaid and over-read academic. To my students, they're a godsend, and I've been humbled enough over the years to remember that Vendler is several decades better read than I am!

"It is up to the reader to notice patterns," says V (31), since "a pattern shows that the poet has analyzed, and then replicated in language," however unconsciously, "some aspect of the content of the poem." And again, later, "only an examination of form...shows us how the poem enacts--represents by several formal shapes--the moment it has chosen, and makes us see the processes of that moment, how it gradually unfolds..." (37). In short, this chapter gets students thinking about "form and content"--that old couple!--in remarkably fresh and precise ways. A Very Useful chapter, indeed!

More next time on how it went in class. Until then, don't miss Josh Corey's latest post on the contrasting experiences of time that you get reading fiction and poetry, which is also remarkably fresh and precise. Nice stuff, Josh!

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Vendler, cont.

The first chapter of Vendler's textbook, "The Poem as Life," offers two useful premises for students reading poetry, if not for the first time, at least as novices. First, poems mostly arise from and represent "well-known and well-worn occasions of life"; and, second, that poets "manage to avoid cliche," in a variety of ways, as their speakers respond to those occasions. The chapter then turns to look at three groups of occasions: those in the private life, those in public life (history, social concerns, and intersections of public and private realms), and the "great intertwined subjects" of nature and time.

She offers a dozen poems in the chapter itself, each with a very brief set of comments--sometimes a paragraph, sometimes simply a sentence--before she moves on. (You can find the full table of contents here.) At first I was quite unimpressed by the chapter, as a result; you have to wait until chapter two to get Vendler showing her close reading stuff. This time through, though, I find myself nodding at her strategy. It's wonderfully relaxing, somehow, to realize that the first few questions she wants you to ask of any poem are so straightforward, so simply posed and answered. As she puts it in the teacher's guide in my edition, the first goal is simply "to show that a single life event produces, in good poems, a series of complex and intelligent responses rather than a single undeviating point of view," and to instill in them the notion that they are meant to become, to take on the subject-position of, the speaker of any given poem. "Many responses are usually present in a poem," and "a poem can't be a single 'meaning'": that's what she wants them to come away with.

She suggests, in the teacher's guide, that you start out by reading aloud and then paraphrasing the poem quickly for the students, so that you don't spend the bulk of class time on questions like "what do you think this stanza is saying?" "No time is left to notice imagination or artistic strategies," she warns. Yup. Been there, done that.

One last summary from V:

"I want students to see, above all, how the mood in question has been freshly imagined. Second, I want them to see how this fresh imagination has been enacted structurally. How does the scene open? Where does it continue? How does it end? Third, I want them to see the elements of drama--changes in sentence structure, syntax, linguistic register, imagery, focus, distance, rhythm. Fourth, I want them to see elements of pattern: repeated syntax, figures like anaphora or alliteration, repeated structures (parallelisms, catalogues, rhythms)."

Seems doable, no?

I'll let you know, tomorrow, what actually happened in class.

Vendler and Pedagogy

This quarter, I'm back to using Helen Vendler's Poems, Poets, Poetry as my Reading Poetry text. My thought for the blog, at least this morning, is to make this the place where I do some of my class planning--notes, etc.--so that anyone out there who teaches poetry can steal from me as I steal from V.

For tomrrow's class, they'll have read her Introduction and Chapter 1 ("The Poem as Life"), this time with all the ancillary poems V suggests. That last is the new twist which I hope will keep this young blade happy as the quarter begins.

Key ideas from the Introduction:

1) "Lyric" poetry is our topic. (They need to know that there are other kinds, including epic and dramatic and various sorts of "I HATE SPEECH" experimental verse.)

2) "Lyric is the genre of private life; it is what we say to ourselves when we are alone. There may be an addressee in lyric (God, or a beloved), but the addressee is always absent. (The dramatic monologue...has a silent addressee on stage, but this is the exception to the rule of the absent addressee." (xlii)
A thought here: what about performance poetry? What about the whole "recitation" enterprise? What new spin does it put on the "absent addressee" convention--or, conversely, how can that convention best inform our performances of poetry, in class or elsewhere?

But I digress...
3. Lyric "lets us into the innermost chamber of another person's mind, and makes us privy to what he or she would say in complete secrecy and safety, with none to overhear" (xlii).
Again, I find myself wondering here... Aren't there lyric poems with a stronger or more anxious rhetorical project: poems of argument, on the one hand, and poems that stay closeted or self-censoring on the other?
4. OK: here's one that rings true for me: "a lyric is meant to be spoken by its reader as if the reader were the one uttering the words. A lyric poem is a script for performance by its reader. It is, then, the most intimate of genres...and it is the most universal of genres, because it presumes that the reader resembles the writer enough to step into the writer's shoes and speak the lines the writer has written as though they were the reader's own" (xlii/iii)

5. "We do not listen to him [the speaker]; we become him." Our job is to make the words our own. Lyric thus offers an "imaginative transformation of self." (xliii)

6. "Every word has to count. So does every gap. In fact, lyric depends on gaps, and depends even more ont he reader to fill in the gaps. It is suggestive rather than exhaustive" (xliii). Poems have gaps and hints, and we need to fill in the first and make the most of the second, "so that the course of [their] emotions can be understood in their full subtlety" (xliii).

Oops--my daughter just came in & asked me to "Read?" How can I refuse? More soon, then.

Monday, January 02, 2006

A Lovely Little Metaphor, a Tiny Detournement

Spotted and put a tiny spin
on this, from Josh's blog:
At the moment I tend to think of the value of a strong poetics/aesthetics as acting like a kind of gravity well, which may itself have all kinds of interesting characteristics (a planet with life on it), or may radiate a powerful and singular energy (a sun), or may be some kind of untranslatable personal mythos of the unconscious (a black hole), or may be something that was once alive but is now dead (a white dwarf).

Purists lob their verbal objects straight int their wells with nary a tremor in their trajectories (or at least such appears to be their goal; I don't think it's actually possible—but they try to correct the flights of their poems through a sort of body english, the profuse production of writings on poetics that can remind me of a bowler trying to turn a gutterball into a strike by twisting and gesturing). Most poets end up with orbits of one kind or another (and an orbit is nothing more than the arc assumed by a body that misses the target it's attracted to); the most interesting of them are slingshotting poems in wide parabolas as they test the limitations of their hard-won poetics. (Poets who can't or won't articulate a poetics are either being sly, which is sometimes necessary, or naive in a way that is bound to make their writing uninteresting in the long run.)

To put it in Lacanian terms, a poetics is like one's Thang, and you derive jouissance (your poem derives energy) based on the distance or orbit that your desire assumes in relation to it. For many of the writers I find most interesting, the politico-aesthetic complex called "Language poetry" is a significant component of their Thang—but none of them are pitching their desires in straight lines at it.

Sorry, Josh--but I couldn't resist. Lacanian terms must never be accepted without a fight. Besides, as Wanda Coleman says in "Beyond Baroque," "it takes a big thang to do a big thang." (And if you don't know Coleman, everyone, she's worth a gander or two.)