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.

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