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.


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