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 IssaWish me luck! And if you have any advice, including advice I've given you myself, and since forgotten, please do send it my way.
New Year’s morning—everything is in blossom!I feel about average.A huge frog and Istaring at each other,neither of us moves.This moth saw brightnessin a woman’s chamber—burned to a crisp.Asked how old he wasthe boy in the new kimonostretched out all five fingers.Blossoms at night,like peoplemoved by musicNapped half the day;no onepunished me!Fiftieth birthday:From now on,It’s all clear profit,every sky.Don’t worry, spiders,I keep housecasually.These sea slugs,they just don’t seemJapanese.Hell:Bright autumn moon;pond snails cryingin the saucepan.