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 reduced...to 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.