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!

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