Monday, January 01, 2007

Happy New Year!

Happy new year, everyone--or new calendar year, as I suppose I'll call it over at my Big Jewish Blog. What I'll call it at Teach Me Tonight, I don't know--but a quick glance shows me that Laura Vivanco, my esteemed co-conspirator there (heck, the woman who writes it, mostly, now) has already posted a greeting, so I'll leave it be.

Having cleverly waited until January 1 to post, I'm free of the resolution duty. Last year my resolution was to keep up the good work; as far as the blogosophere goes, however, I've been a bit slow to post, and scattered in my topics, so a resolution to show up here and keep writing wouldn't be bad. I feel so scattered, sometimes, from role to role, blog to blog, topic to topic, that it's easiest just to retreat into silence for long periods, plugging away at one or more of my projects and trusting that you'll take a gander now and then to see whether I'm back. But this year, I'll try harder. Really. Hold me to that.


My winter quarter classes start this Thursday, I suddenly realize. Dang! I thought I had another week to plan and prep them. This officially opens the "What Was I Thinking?" door in my brain--the week of self-doubt as I look over the books I've ordered and try to remember why on earth I wanted to use them. In my Reading Poetry class I've ditched Camille Paglia and the whole literary-historical approach I took last quarter, and have retreated to Kenneth Koch's studiously genial Making Your Own Days: the Pleasures of Reading and Writing Poetry, along with The Wadsworth Anthology of Poetry, a promising new (well, newish) "anthology of anthologies," organized in chronological clusters by genre, theme, and form. (It starts, for example, with scraps of epics: the Odyssey, Book 9, some Beowulf, some Milton, the whole of The Rape of the Lock, some Whitman, Pound, H.D., the full Waste Land, and a section or two from Omeros.) I have today and tomorrow to decide how to deploy these two texts--in retrospect, I probably should have stuck with only one--and how to teach this class in some fresh, engaging new way, so that it doesn't madden me as it did last quarter.


One reason I chose the Koch, as I recall, had to do with his emphasis, early in the book, on the centrality of sound to poetry. Indeed, he defines poetry right from the start as "a language in which the sound of the words is raised to an importance equal to their meaning, and also equal to the importance of grammar and syntax." Quoth the poet, who ought to know, "Poets think of how they want something to sound as much as they think of what they want to say, and in fact it's often impossible to distinguish one from the other" (20).

Now, that's a definition that gives me qualms as a professor. My students struggle so often to make out the simplest, plainest, most prosaic sense of a poem that I worry what will happen if I tell this on the first or second day of class. On the other hand, as a reader of poetry, I'd have to say that Koch is right on target--and, come to think of it, that my students' difficulties with the plain prose sense have almost nothing to do with the fact that they are reading poetry per se. (They've been raised by wolves, alas! College-level vocabulary, complex sentence structure, quickness of wit, broad range of reference: these are what they face in poetry, as in fiction, but with poems, they can't fake their way past puzzlement, or at least not so easily.)

In any case, this morning the kind folks at the Poetry Foundation offered me this to read, by Robert Hass, and I must admit that the pleasures I take in it are largely--not entirely, but often and initially--pleasures of sound. How, I wonder, can I teach my students to hear the trochaic "rhyme" that holds the opening stanza together so cleverly, or the other sonic pleasures in these lines? That's the first task, perhaps, of this quarter's ENG 220. I'll keep you posted on how it goes.
After the Gentle Poet Kobayashi Issa

by Robert Hass

New Year’s morning—
everything is in blossom!
I feel about average.

A huge frog and I
staring at each other,
neither of us moves.

This moth saw brightness
in a woman’s chamber—
burned to a crisp.

Asked how old he was
the boy in the new kimono
stretched out all five fingers.

Blossoms at night,
like people
moved by music

Napped half the day;
no one
punished me!

Fiftieth birthday:

From now on,
It’s all clear profit,
every sky.

Don’t worry, spiders,
I keep house

These sea slugs,
they just don’t seem


Bright autumn moon;
pond snails crying
in the saucepan.
Wish me luck! And if you have any advice, including advice I've given you myself, and since forgotten, please do send it my way.

1 comment:

Laura Vivanco said...

" A huge frog and I
staring at each other,
neither of us moves. "

This makes me think of the Mercer Meyer story of the boy, the dog and the frog, which:

begins in the river, where the frog swims and plays. Meanwhile, a boy gets up, gets dressed and takes his dog out to play. In the garage, the boy finds a pail and net. Then dog and boy go down to the water to try and capture the frog. Their efforts are useless—the frog always splashes away. But when the boy and dog give up for the day, the frog follows them home. At the end of the story, the frog hops upstairs and joins the boy and dog for an evening bath. (from a pdf document that opens up if you click here)

Frogs always seem full of possibility to me, including this sort of possibility.

To me, poems often seem more like photos, or pictures (the Mercer Meyer book has no words, just pictures) than prose fiction does. There are so many spaces left for you to add your own interpretation, particularly in a poem like this one. Prose fiction is much more likely to tell you each protagonist's back-history, describe the action in detail and give you a continuing narrative. [Obviously I'm not talking about epic poems.] And that's a visual metaphor, not one about sound, so I'm not sure it helps you at all, or answers your question. How about telling them that some poems are like photos with a percussion accompaniment?

Happy New Calendar Year, Eric!