Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Herbert, "Love (III)"

So what do I want them to notice in George Herbert's "Love (III)"? What to learn from it about how poems work, and how to read them?

Looking in Vendler's book The Poetry of George Herbert--how many years have I had that on my shelf?--I find a few tools that would be worth sharing.

She looks at the poem spatially, tracking the shrinking distance between God and the soul as it goes along. (By the end, I guess, it vanishes altogether, as God is actually ingested.)

She tracks the gradual revelation of the various attributes of Love: first welcoming, then observant, then solicitous, and so on. I like this, too: the poem as sequential and accretive definition.

She tracks as well the hesitations of the speaker: his own self-revelation, or maybe self-transformation. (I'd add to this the way these play out in terms of language--this speaker is constantly adjectival, always describing himself, through the first two stanzas and into the start of the third; then he begins to leave that behind in favor of simple actions, first in the future, and then in the simple past.)

I love her attention to the social comedy of the poem, "like some decorous minuet," as she says (275). She also does good work with how Herbert "reworks his source" (Luke 12:37). He changes crucial details (who comes, who is watching, who changes for the feast) to turn this--
Blessed [are] those servants, whom the lord when he cometh shall find watching: verily I say unto you, that he shall gird himself, and make them to sit down to meat, and will come forth and serve them.
to this:

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey'd Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack'd anything.

"A guest," I answer'd, "worthy to be here";
Love said, "You shall be he."
"I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee."
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
"Who made the eyes but I?"

"Truth, Lord, but I have marr'd them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve."
"And know you not," says Love, "who bore the blame?"
"My dear, then I will serve."
"You must sit down," says Love, "and taste my meat."
So I did sit and eat.

John Donne Paper Topic

Last Thursday we spent all day in ENG 220 (Reading Poetry) on two holy sonnets by Donne: "Batter my heart, three-personed God" and "Thou has made me, and shall thy work decay?" I suspect the students were a little disappointed--they probably wanted to talk about "The Flea," which we only chatted about in passing--but I had a blast, not least because I haven't taught either of these at any length in many years. My favorite moment in the discussion came when we took up the final lines of "Batter my heart," which Paglia (our text, remember) reads rather simplistically. To her, "ravish" is a synonym for "rape"; as my students learned when we put the OED on screen (Lord, I love classrooms with live computer hook-ups!) and read through the various meanings that word had by Donne's time, all of which seemed active in, and relevant to, the poem.

After class, I went back to my office to check what Helen Vendler's Poems, Poets, Poetry does with that sonnet. In the Teacher's Guide, she suggests that you spell out to the class in advance that according to Christian theology--at least the theology Donne knew--God can't simply slap your soul upside the head and force it to accept redemption. That would have helped in class; I'll keep that in mind for next time. She also offers a wonderful paper topic, which I thought I'd pass along to you:
What are the two adjectives in the couplet that tell us what the speaker wants to be? How do these adjectives generate the two chief metaphors (town and bride) of the poem? Track the verbs used in the commands hurled at God by the speaker, and connect them to the two closing verbs ('enthrall', 'ravish') of the couplet: Are they similar or different? What is the playof language between the meanings of the commands and the meanings (look them up in the dictionary) of the two closing verbs?
One thing this assignment would do, I think, is tune the students in to how "wrong" or "off" the initial demands of God in the poem turn out to be. Not just wrong theologically, but wrong given what the speaker "really wants," by the close.

Today, Herbert and Marvell! Anyone out there have any good paper topics, study questions, or classroom approaches to "Love (III)"?

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Once More, With Feeling

I'm teaching two classes this quarter at DePaul: Reading Poetry (ENG 220, mostly for sophomores and juniors) and Teaching Poetry (ENG 475, for MA students, about a third of them currently teachers). I'm doing both of them a little differently this year, in ways that you might find interesting to hear about, whoever you are!

This is my 20th iteration of 220, the Reading Poetry class. To keep myself from simply going through the motions, as Buffy says, I'm using an entirely new class and approach: that is, I've ordered Camille Paglia's Break, Blow, Burn as our text, and we're simply reading it, every poem, every essay, in order, over the course of the quarter. Why, you ask? Because although I'm pretty good at teaching my students to read poems closely, they need a LOT of help learning how to write close readings. Paglia's book has 43 of them, and their job is to take a new poem and write an essay just like one of hers about it. We're going to learn her moves, and to ask, as we face each new text, "What Would Paglia Do?"

In class, on the first full day, we got through one poem. Oops.

Well, to be fair, I did some set up first--maybe too much, but who knows? I spent some time at the start of class talking about what their job was, according to her Introduction; that is, what is it you have to do when writing a "close reading?" According to her intro, it's to write “concise commentaries on poetry that illuminate the text but also give pleasure in themselves as pieces of writing,” which strikes me as pretty good advice, especially when she adds that these commentaries should be “sympathetic redramatizations that try to capture defining gestures and psychological strategies.” Sounds good so far.

What else does she advise? Use a “microscopic, sequential method”--again, sounds good--to “focus the mind, sharpen perception, and refine emotion.” Move line by line or section by section, from start to finish.

Yup. That's what I want them to do. But it gets even better!

As she praises her favorite college professors, she says they were “dramatic, celebratory, and ingeniously associative, bringing everything to bear on the text.” Anything they know--about music, about art, about Buffy, about religion, about the movies--might conceivably help, so bring it on. (Hmm... Let me rephrase that.) In particular, she suggests that we attend to the “hybrid etymology” of English, which is exploited by poets: blunt, Anglo-Saxon concreteness, sleek Norman French urbanity, and polysyllabic Greco-Roman abstraction” Remember: “the best route into poetry is through the dictionary (Emily Dickinson’s bible).”

All good, unremarkable, necessary advice.

I also like her twofold interest in structure (artists are makers; poems are made things, like cabinets or bridges) and in the sacred, primal energies, the sublime. Some students will be hooked by the first, and some by the second; I'm glad to have both on the table for perusal.

The first two poems she explores are Shakespeare sonnets: "That time of year..." and "When in disgrace with Fortune..." I gave my students a wee bit of background on sonnets, probably more than they needed. If you need some to crib from, for your own class, here it is:

Sonnets were invented, as far as we know, by one Giacomo da Lentino, a lawyer or notary in Sicily, around 1230, in the age of Frederick II. Sicily was a multicultural fusion-kingdom at the time: recently conquered by Normans from the Islamic caliphate, and still at least as Muslim a kingdom as a Catholic Italian one. Frederick himself was said to speak nine languages and be literate in seven; he was constantly attacked by the Church in Rome as a heretic for his tolerance of other faiths, his interest in science, and his skeptical rationalism. Sicily a place where merchants and courtiers from across the Mediterranean and beyond, from Baghdad to Norman England, came to trade and exchange ideas.

Da Lentino was trained in Latin, but he decided to invent a new kind of poem in Sicilian, possibly on the model of the vernacular literatures coming out of Spain and Provence at the time. Within five years, courtiers and civil servants in Sicily are writing groups of sonnets; the first sonnet sequences by a single author that we know of are by the Italian poet Guittone d’Arezzo (123?-1294): a 6-sonnet fictional argument between a “donna villana” (low-born woman) and her lover, and a 25-sonnet sequence on the “Art of Love” about courtly love, both written in the early 1260s or so.

About 50 years later, Petrarch writes 317 sonnets (and 49 other poems) in the Rime Sparse, for a woman named Laura. Laura dies of the Black Death in Avignon on April 6, 1348. After her death, Petrarch decides to assemble the sonnets he had written to praise her while she lived, and add others in memory of her.

Petrarch dies in 1374, and these poems in the vernacular are not considered his major work. He’s lauded, becomes the laureate, for his writing in Latin, mostly. In the 15th century, however, his sonnet sequence gets revived as part of an Italian political resurgence (he’s writing in the vernacular, as an Italian poet), and because of the invention and spread of printing after 1470 or so, editions of his Rime Sparse appear with the sonnets all numbered and with introductions explaining that they’re autobiographical, etc., spreading them as a model.

By the mid-1500s, this concept of the autobiographical sonnet sequence enters British, French, and Spanish literature as one of the things you have to have in order to have a first-rate national literature. The French sonnets of Joachim du Bellay, in particular, make nationalist claims for the form (i.e., this is a way to establish a great literature in your vernacular).

First sonnets in English are by Sir Thomas Wyatt (who develops the couplet ending) and Henry Howard, Early of Surrey, who develops the divided octave and change of rhymes after the first quatrain (easier in English!). First English sonnet sequence is Anne Locke’s Meditations of a Penitent Sinner in 1560, but it’s not very influential at first. The Elizabethan sonnet-sequence craze starts thirty years later in 1591 with publication of Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella. By the time Shakespeare writes his, in 1609 or so, they’re already terribly old school.

That led us into Sonnet 73 ("That time of year") and a discussion of how Shakespeare deploys topoi (stock comparisons, part of any sort of Renaissance education in rhetoric) and elaborates them, quatrain by quatrain, to make them fresh or more complex. We had some fun with “yellow leaves, or none, or few”--why in that order, and not "yellow, few, or none"--, a question that Paglia skips almost entirely. We said a little, but not enough, about the jolting final couplet: the etymology of "perceive," and its contrast with the monosyllables around it; the vowel-chiasmus of "perceive--love // love -- leave." Paglia misses, or simply skips, much of the emotional drama of those last two lines, which haunt me quite terribly: you're going to leave me, they say, wrenching us from the point of view we've held for 13 lines (I'm looking at myself, and see what you see) into a point of view that is either purely internal (when I die, you leave me behind, not the other way around) or external, and utterly chilling.

Dang! There's the bell, so to speak. I need to run off and prep Donne. More soon on that, and other things.


Wednesday, September 06, 2006


Still hammering away at the NEH grant proposal. Got some useful feedback today from a variety of sources; now I need to factor it all in, and cut the project narrative by half, or thereabouts. Oh, yes--and get ready to teach tomorrow. Ack!

As a placeholder, then, this seemed appropriate:

Dana Gioia


Money is a kind of poetry.

– Wallace Stevens

Money, the long green,
cash, stash, rhino, jack
or just plain dough.

Chock it up, fork it over,
shell it out. Watch it
burn holes through pockets.

To be made of it! To have it
to burn! Greenbacks, double eagles,
megabucks and Ginnie Maes.

It greases the palm, feathers a nest,
holds heads above water,
makes both ends meet.

Money breeds money.
Gathering interest, compounding daily.
Always in circulation.

Money. You don't know where it's been,
but you put it where your mouth is.
And it talks.