Monday, March 27, 2006

Notes Between Grades

Grading The Stack: still another 30-something papers, etc., to read.

Nothing galls me so much as a bad student essay. It seems so ungrateful: "After all the work I did, this is what you give me?" Nothing pleases me so much as an effortless "A."


Donne brings out the best in my students. I hope this isn't simply becaused they've studied him elsewhere, before. The paper I'm reading now, on "The Flea," does better work with prosody than any essay I've seen all quarter, and I'm irrationally thrilled: Someone gets it! Or maybe it's more the thrill of finding someone I can talk to about such matters, maybe in a future seminar.

The women, especially, get him--they love how he responds to a silent female interlocutor, turn by turn--indeed, they've taught me to emphasize that element in his poems. I love to acknowledge such debts, and wish I heard them more often from colleagues.


"Great work on rhythm here!" How rare is that, even among the professoriat? Yet this same student lards the word "somewhat" into every page: "the diction and the rhythm of this section are somewhat of a synthesis of the two previous stanzas." How can a student with an ear for Donne's rhythms care so little about his own prose?


Procrastinated just now by surfing to some favorite blogs & following their leads. Emily Lloyd links to an interesting manifesto, of sorts, by an Asian American poet I hadn't read before: Cathy Park Hong. Mark led me somehow to Bemsha Swing--I think I just followed his link--and I spent some happy time reading posts on Kenneth Koch (an old favorite) and the goals of criticism... Then noticed that SSW isn't on his list of links. Sniff! Not that I link to many blogs here, and not that I actually want to join many blog-to-blog conversations. Too damned busy. Oh, right, with grading. Back to The Stack.


Hey, this one actually uses "his manhood" as a euphemism! I love it--my romance reading (circa 1972) and my poetry teaching suddenly coincide. The poem, by the way, says "his flesh" and "this sweet root," but not the M-word.

Even this paper, though, makes some fine moves with sound. And looks up a verb ("echo") to find its etymology, & weaves the myth back into the poem. Well done!

Mixed papers are hard to grade. I just want them to be revised, endlessly revised, until they are perfect, so that my job will be easier.


I usually let students work on only one paper over the course of a quarter in "Reading Poetry." They have to revise it multiple times, so that by the end of the quarter, they've all had the experience of writing one absolutely solid explication, and can therefore do it again. Why on earth did I not do that this time?

Lunch. Early. Yes.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Lessons and Boojums

Kudos to Josh, not only for "letting the snark subside," but for using the noun form of my new favorite word so effectively. (Gives a whole new meaning to "The Hunting of the Snark," doesn't it?) Some interesting thoughts from him in response to my last post about what is to be done.

If poetry were on the curriculum and if it were taught unsadistically (for how else can you describe the usual process by which poems are vivisected in search of "meaning," and by which students are made to feel that reading poetry is an unpleasant test to be circumvened whenever possible?), its audience would expand tremendously. (Though I'm still skeptical as to whether a mass audience could be so generated, at least not for the kind of social formalism I'm most engaged by.)

I agree: "social formalism" will always be a minority taste. That's alright: so are classical music, jazz, and seriously peaty Scotch. (I'm making my way through a very mellow bottle of The Dalmore Cigar Malt these days.) On the other hand, the more you build an audience for all sorts of poetry, the larger the total number of readers in that minority will be.

A follow-up question for you, though, Josh: is close reading necessarily sadistic? Or just the way it's usually done? How did you--would you--do it differently in your own classes? (A good question to have contemplated before those MLA interviews!)

The trouble with this conclusion is that its left me feeling like there's little that I can contribute toward solving the problem, since I doubt I have the temperament for teaching younger students.

Ah, but you'll be teaching their teachers as undergraduates--or you may, if the job market gives you the chance. Never discount the ripple effect of good undergraduate teaching!

Perhaps we really do need a new Brooks & Warren devoted to contemporary small press work (sometimes I think Steve Burt is embarked upon such a project, albeit in piecemeal fashion: consider his Believer essay, "Close Calls With Nonsense," which carries the subtitle "How to Read, and Perhaps Enjoy, Very New Poetry").

I'm getting mighty perky about this idea, folks. Anyone out there know Steve Burt? He and I should talk. Better yet, he and I and all the other folks who feel this need. I sense a book proposal coming on.

It's a tricky negotiation: the teacher and the poet don't necessarily share many concerns.

Agreed! In fact, we may often be antagonists. That's one of many reasons that I'm more comfortable with poems than with poets.

The teacher's investment is necessarily in his or her students—in readers—and in ushering them into a safe space for trial and error, with the ultimate goal of empowering them to fly on their own critical wings.

Well, often the teacher's investment is in preparing his or her students to succeed in other academic environments: in the confines of a standardized test, for example (AP, IB, ACT, SAT, GRE); or in the context of an upper-division course for which your "Intro to Poetry" is a prerequisite. Never underestimate these sorts of contextual forces.

As I have often said, I'd like to see the gap between poets and readers erased,

Really? Why? I mean, in practice I'd like to see the gap between musicians and listeners blurred--hence my fumblings at the oud--and I've spent much of my adult life closing the gap between diner and cook chez moi, but readers of poetry are so rare, so precious to me, that I'd hate to put another roadblock in their way by making them writers, too!

and I believe that poetry—particularly poetry that demands some degree of labor—has a vital role in fostering negative capability, which is the dialectic's next-door neighbor and as such the possible key to a mode of enlightenment that also has room for mysteries and doubts.

You just lost me, Josh. I can handle NC, Dialectic, and Enlightenment in separate sentences, and maybe handle two at a time, but all three at once? (Oops! Snark alert.) OK, let's put it this way: I think "enlightenment" is too lofty a goal, with or without the mysteries and doubts. What would be a lower-proof way of describing what you have in mind? Is there any way to reconcile it--probably not, I fear--with the curricular demands of academia, at any level, or is it by rights and by necessity an out-of-school, even anti-scholastic project? That may not be a bad thing, by the way. Lord knows it's a "hook"!

I think a teacher could contribute by helping students to read the way writers do, with an eye toward the emotional and intellectual effects of particular techniques.

Let's hear more about this, Josh! What would a lesson or exercise based on this investigation look like? How would it be different from the sadistic inquiries you mentioned earlier?

Which probably also necessarily means encouraging students to write their own poems—not that young people really need such encouragement.

OK: so an assignment with a "creative writing" component. Keep talking--I'm listening--and so are the teachers who read this--

Maybe I've got it backwards: we all start as writers, but only a few of us become readers.

Peter Kahn, a master teacher here in the Chicago area, premises his Spoken Word Poetry Club on this insight, with great success. Students start by writing, and they become readers so that they can steal moves from the best. It seems to work.

I know that reading for me was essential to imagining a community of thought and fellowship to which I might belong. Reading is a product of loneliness, but you have to feel lonely first. There are maybe too many distractions, too many alternative simulacra of fellowship, to foster that kind of passionate reading today.

Hey! Leave thoughts like this to the middle-aged, Josh. They may be true, but if you're thinking them already, what's left to look forward to in your 40s? (Heh, heh... If you only knew.) I'd rather have you, and your blog's readers, continue the practical brainstorming work of the rest of this post. Something very good may come of it.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Josh Fit de Battle of Jericho; or, What Is To Be Done?

This arrived during dinner, from Josh--again, with responses from me.

All right, since you've led the conversation back to your own backyard, I'll follow you there. What I don't understand is your contention—one you've made before—that poets are to blame if they don't have many readers, and that apparently there's a larger readership available if one is willing to write to the tastes of undergraduates and teens (that's the audience you single out).

Well, let's see. I would say that some poets don't have many readers because of the sorts of poems they write, but that the reason most poets don't have many readers is because of the ways that poetry gets taught in this country--or not taught, as the case may be--from grade school onward. If poetry were taught, for example, as part of the national patrimony, with the assumption that elementary students should know their Whitman and Dickinson, Hayden and Hughes, because these are our great national poets, just as French students and Italian students learn Baudelaire or Petrarch early on, there would probably end up a wider audience for poetry. I also tend to agree with (gasp) Dana Gioia that an emphasis on performance, rather than explication, would help. I can think of many poems whose primary appeal to me does not lie in "figuring them out" but rather in "giving them voice," although in practice the latter always involves more of the former than one realizes, at least consciously.

My first response to that is, isn't 99.9 percent of our pop culture already devoted to the whims of teens and twentysomethings? But more to the point: if I wanted to reach a mass audience, I wouldn't write poems! Poetry, at least the kind I care about, demands qualities of attention that I doubt the mass of people will ever be willing to bring to reading, at least reading for entertainment's sake.

Hence my argument that, as you put it, sometimes "poets are to blame if they don't have many readers." No? If you don't write for a mass audience, you can't really complain about not having one. Fit audience though few seems to be what you're after, honestly speaking. Although I must warn you: Jacqueline Osherow, one of my favorite contemporary poets, is as sneakily "accessible" as Robert Frost was. I've taught her successfully to teens, twenty-somethings, aging Baby Boomers, and my own 97 year old grandmother. She doesn't have the readers that she deserves, but she's by no means to blame.

It makes more sense to me to do the kind of critical, editorial, and scholarly work that will direct the pool of readers already extant to the kinds of poems I care about—Johnson's poems, for instance.

Well, yes and no. I teach RJ's poems to undergraduates, graduates, and the teachers in my NEH seminars, some of whom go on to teach them to their high school students. (A 10th-grade classroom in rural Appalachia spent a few sessions on Beam 10 of ARK thanks to me--and their teacher--this fall.) When I found out about an upcoming NEH seminar on Milton, I contacted the professor leading it to find out if he knew about Radi Os. The pool of readers for every kind of poetry grows when poetry is taught well; in fact, current research by the Poetry Foundation suggests, apparently, that good K-12 teaching is the single biggest variable in adult attention to poetry. So I try to teach well, and teach others to teach well--but I find that this sort of work only rarely involves the kinds of writing or thinking that go on in scholarly journals, and I know that my teachers are desperate to know where they can find out about how to read and teach contemporary poetry.

One sort of "critical, editorial, and scholarly work" that is desperately needed, then, is work that brings a wider variety of poems and a wider variety of reading skills and strategies to those K-12 classrooms, via their teachers and via the educational establishment. This can happen by educating teachers, as I've been doing; it could also use a big push chez the AP, both in terms of the AP courses and (of course) in terms of the AP tests. If anyone knows how I can do this, or how anyone else can, please let me know!

Getting good essays published on the poets you love is also desperately important. But what essays, and where, and on whom? This I don't really know. Maybe you, as a current graduate student, have a better idea. My hunch is that the essays have to make some impact on one's own job prospects, and on those of the folks who read them, in order to have any real impact, but even then, who knows? Marjorie Perloff writes about Susan Howe for APR, and suddenly we're all talking about her, in part because the essay was a great piece of advocacy. Ditto for Perloff on Niedecker, I think in the same venue. Pieces that bring together poets across scholastic boundaries can make a difference, like Kathrine Varnes's wonderful talk on Julia Alvarez, Kathleen Fraser, and Anne Sexton at the Narrative and Formalist Poetries conference a decade ago. (That got me reading Alvarez's "33," and then teaching it, and then teaching it to teachers, none of which I would have done if it weren't for the fresh perspective KV brought, and her general fabulousness.) It would be nice to find a concerted effort underway, by all of us, to make lesson plans and other good classroom material about the poets we love available to each other, and to teachers: I know the MAPS site is a good start in this direction, and Al Filreis's English 88 materials, but more could certainly be done.

The only ready path I can see toward actually growing the readership for poetry is through my work as a teacher. And as a good teacher you've no doubt listened well to what it is your students like. But I also imagine that, as a good teacher, you've worked hard to stretch that liking, and introduce students to work outside their comfort zone, and perhaps even made a few converts to the work of Johnson and others whose complex linguistic textures could never be confused with the poetry of personal authenticity that I associate with slams.

True on all counts, Josh.

For the moment I'm mostly concerned with imagining ways in which me and my fellow poets might come together to make stuff happen, and perhaps to grow attention for the small press work that challenges and refreshes me the most. Ways we might support each other. New paths for the energy that too often expresses itself as bile, injured narcissism, and snark. Though I'll take even that kind of energy over slackness and gentility any day.

So what are some things you could do? Off the top of my head, I'd say that there is precious little material out there that teaches outsiders how to read that sort of small press work for (and with) pleasure. Most "introduction to poetry" training won't do the trick; the reading strategies I deploy on a Robert Hayden poem don't get me far with one of Arielle Greenberg's, say. We could use a LOT of articles in College English and in journals aimed at teachers about how and why to read and teach the work that you love; we need essays and textbooks and lessons that guide potential readers toward such work as steadily and brilliantly as Brooks and Warren guided theirs to Donne and Eliot, with as little specialized and theoretical terminology in them as possible. (This is a rhetorical strategy, not a moral judgment.)

What else? We need teacher training seminars like mine, but bigger and more frequent and more local; we need contact with Education departments and Teaching Literature courses they offer; as I said above, we need to infiltrate the conventions and planning discussions of the AP and SAT and other standardized-test institutions, because teachers do teach to those tests, and any reading strategies and textual suggestions that don't help students perform better will probably have a short shelf-life.

You'll note that I've wandered far from the world of small press publication, ad hoc magazines, and even scholarly journals. I don't know any of those worlds well enough to know what would make a difference for poetry in any of them: if publishing chunks of your own dissertation, for example, will help any of the poets you write about in any significant or lasting way. (Not an insult: I just don't know. Did it help RJ that I wrote about him in Contemporary Literature and Postmodern Culture and the Dictionary of Literary Biography? It probably didn't hurt, but I suspect that it did more for my career, alas, than for his.)

So: a snark-free response, Josh. What do you think?

Jousting with Josh

I posted some comments over at Josh's blog: more sympathetic than my notes over here, or so they were meant to be, anyway.

"Josh," says I,

I don't think you've entirely clarified (to yourself or to me) the range of desires you're trying to articulate.

Some are practical: health insurance, more opportunities to publish, more attention from potential readers.

Some are social: the "association to mutual creative benefit" you speak of here; the encouragement; the honest opinions, etc.

Others here I find harder to name, maybe because they're incohate or maybe just because I'm not a poet, and so don't know what you're up against or going through. This desire for "dignity" for example...or for the "capacity for giving" to be enlarged. Or for "life." What are the losses, the frustrations, the lacks that these are meant to assuage? To what extent are they shared, unnecessary, and political, and how much are they really much more local, more idiosyncratic, more about you, age X in situation Y?
Here was his reply, with comments by me inter alia:
Eric, both you in your snarky post (is "snarky" a more fun way of saying "cynical"?
Yes! Ain't it grand? I learned it from the ladies in romance--check out, for example, the snarkalicious comments on trashy cover art at the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books blog. and Aaron Tieger in his post worry that I've forgotten about readers. But if you wanted to quote Thoreau the way Mark did, surely you don't mean to suggest that we all should start writing poems that folks wanna read? You know, poems that rhyme and stuff?
Who's snarky now? I mean, really, Josh. This reminds me of a horrible exchange I had once with a famous & tenured avant-garde poet who saw no difference between reading Yeats and watching the Late Show. Contempt for the audience much? Ah, well--a dozen years of teaching undergraduates and judging teen poetry slams will give you some idea of the poems that folks want to read, even if it doesn't give you any more respect for their taste.
I rather take that quote as meant to nudge its reader out of the selfish circle of his concerns: it's akin to what some people have said about how we should worry about health care for everyone and not just poets.
No, I think the Thoreau quote--in my hands, since I can't speak for Mark--was meant to nudge you into remembering that you're hardly the first writer to feel put upon because your efforts, your gifts, heck your life's work are not a commodity that many people want to buy, and that just because you show up with them, you can't expect them to do their part and attend.

But that attitude strikes me as quietistic. As if you'll be able to have any impact on global warming if you don't start taking better care of your own neighborhood first.
Straw man, this. I think in general the political analogies are misplaced here, Josh. What you're really after is some sort of renaissance in--or first birth of--a Civil Society of Poetry. Politics is not the cure for this literary bowling alone.
Yeah, my desires are inchoate. It's a POETS' union, damnit. Its primary function might very well be the fuller articulation of its members' desires, which is the first step toward pursuing them.
Hmmm... don't know what you want, but you know how to get it, eh?
Surely, Eric, you don't blame poets and poets alone for the dearth of readers out there? You're a Ronald Johnson fan, aren't you? You think his work is beautiful, offering many pleasures? Why then is he so obscure? Would writing diffferent kinds of poems have solved that problem? Easier poems? Do they get any easier than his concrete work?
Whew! That hits close to home. Let me put this as plainly as I can, Josh: RJ is obscure because I'm not Marjorie Perloff, Helen Vendler, or Harold Bloom. If I were--heck, if I hadn't taken five years off the conference and publication circuit, for the sake of my marriage and my kids, but been out there preaching the good word--RJ studies would be in a very different place right now. By all means, though--Mark, Josh, everyone--let's have this discussion. What would have made, or would now make, the difference?

What I'm saying is: if you want to address the dearth of readers, address the dearth of readers. I don't think that anything you've said so far about the Poets Union (PU--maybe not the best acronym?) does anything to address it either.

OK: off the soapbox. I have kids to feed.

Mark vs. Josh, and Some Snarky Bits from Me

Over at his Culture Industry blog, Mark takes issue with Josh Corey's musings about a poetry union and a poets' strike. Damn his eyes, he beats me to posting Thoreau's little fable about the Indian basket weaver in response. I'm surprised he's so nice about it, though. Many of the comments on Josh's site take a harder, more cynical line.

Not to be a cynic myself, but I'd actually welcome a strike by contemporary poets. Go for it, everyone! Give me a year or two, or a decade, to catch up on what's out there already. It's not as though I'm in danger of running out of poetry to read. Besides, what's to stop me from outsourcing poetic production to Ireland, India, and elsewhere? (Paging Frank O'Hara: what are the poets in Ghana up to these days?)

In a revealing textual echo, Josh writes:
I have a fantasy of the stable of "name" poets at, say, Knopf or FSG banding together and demanding a more open review and publication policy. But is that just more feudalism? Noblesse oblige?

Poets manufacture poetry. Critics, editors, and academics manufacture attention. Which is the scarcer commodity?

Attention must be paid for.
Yes, folks, Josh is feeling a bit like Linda Loman these days: Attention must be paid!

God forbid, of course, that anyone should try to get readers to pay attention to poetry--say, by promoting it, trying to spur demand, maybe through...gee, I dunno...maybe a National Poetry Month. That would be crass, commercialistic, and probably encourage the wrong sort of people to read the wrong sort of poetry anyway.

I have plenty of sympathy for anyone stuck for paid work and healthcare in this ridiculous economy, but the particular plight of poets? Not so much.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to turn my attention back to one more poet who certainly rewards it (Norman Finkelstein) and then to a couple of books from the most despised genre in America, romance fiction. A genre which, by the way, has virtually no critics or academics manufacturing attention for it. Just good marketing, responsive editors, writers who aim to please, and readers, Josh. Remember them? Lots and lots of readers.

Poetry Novels

Ever since starting my latest Parnassus piece on novels about poets--I'll always think of it as "Buffy the Poetry Slayer," even though I've had to change the title since--I've kept an eye out for such books. In addition to the ones I write about in the piece, I've come across two that look intriguing, although I haven't had the chance to read either of them yet.

The first is Passion: a Novel of the Romantic Poets, by one Jude Morgan. I picked this up a few weeks ago, started it, and had to stop when the deadline pressure got too hot. The first few chapters read very well, though, and took a promising approach to the times and the topic: namely, they start a generation back and a gender away from Byron, Keats, Shelley, et. al., with a focus on the women who will enter the poets' lives: Mary Shelley, Fanny Brawne, Lady Caroline Lamb, Augusta Leigh, etc. I've actually spent very little time with the British Romantics over the years--maybe this novel will be a good hook to reel me in. I'll keep you posted.

The "Book of the Day" this morning, over at Nextbook, is a Canadian novel by A. M. Klein: a name I don't know, although he was apparently a significant poet up there in the Great White North. Anyone out there ever read him, or her? (Note to self: one of my heteronyms in coming years should be E. M. Selinger, maybe, to provoke similar musings in others.) Anyway, the novel in question is:
A.M. Klein
The Second Scroll
New Canadian Library, $6.95

In the year following Israel's founding, a Montreal publisher asks a young local poet to travel through the fledgling country and return with "a volume of translations of the poems and songs of Israel's latest nest of singing birds." The poet, a stand-in for Klein, has a different journey in mind: He wants to find his Uncle Melech, who survived the Holocaust and is now presumed to be in the Holy Land.

Reminiscent of Nabokov and Joyce, this lyrical novel begins with five chapters that correspond with (and are named for) the five books of the Torah. The five sections that follow, meanwhile, take the form of scholarly glosses on the first five. Through his unusual structure and the precision of his language, Klein somehow manages to chronicle history's violent episodes while continually hitting notes of hope.
Sounds interesting enough, and when I get the chance (ha-ha) I may pick it up, although it sounds perhaps more like fodder for my Big Jewish Blog than this one.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Easing Back In

Hi, everyone. I'm back, sort of. Easing back in. I've just starting trolling the blogosphere, catching up on the last two months of posts chez Mark and Josh and Emily and Robert and so on. A lot to read; a lot to think about; lots of cool pictures from conferences that I didn't go to.

What have I been up to instead? Well, let's see--other than banging out that piece on novels about poets (dichtersromane) and novels about poetry (dichtungskriticsromane), and writing my latest NEH grant proposal (keep your fingers crossed!), winning a wonderful grant to write about my favorite fiction from the RWA, and generally keeping up with my life, I've been working on...

Drumroll, please...


Yes, folks, lesson plans for high school teachers, bringing the good word to those who need it most. So far the kind folks at the Poetry Foundation have gone with four of them, which I'm proud to say are available to all of you here.

Maybe I should have given a paper somewhere--and Lord knows, I miss schmoozing and boozing with all of you conference buddies. But you know, in the big scheme of things, I think these suckers will do more for the world of poetry than one more talk by little old me.

Besides, I'm hitting the road myself next month. Going to the Popular Culture Association's national conference to talk about Emma Holly's Hunting Midnight, my favorite paranormal erotic romance, on the "Sex and Romance" panel of the "Eros and Pornography" division. Now that should be a conference! (And on Holy Thursday, no less.)

So--check out the lesson plans, let me know what you think, and let me know what other sorts of resources for teachers I should get busy writing. And if you're curious about the philosophical and aesthetic issues at stake in scenes of hot and heavy shapeshifting upyr-on-human sex, I know the guy to ask.