What do I want to do in my Reading Poetry couse this quarter?
I want to start by introducing them to two aspects of what it means to be a reader of poetry: the side of freedom, and the side of mastery.
Viewed from the side of freedom, poetry is the genre in which anything that can happen in language does happen. Language has no reality principle; it can speak impossible desires, make nonsense sound perfectly reasonable, perfectly true; it can please us, delight us, even when we don’t know what it’s saying. From this perspective, poetry is the genre that’s all about what Keats called “Negative Capability”: the ability to be “in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” It lets us muse, it lets us be outrageous and extravagant and surprised, it sakes off cliches and lets us play with words as no other adult setting ever allows. It is free, and it sets us free.
There is, however, another side to being a reader of poetry: one that is, I think, equally potent, equally compelling, equally attractive, and equally important. I call this the aspect of mastery.
Viewed through the lens of mastery, poetry is the genre in which language can achieve something close to absolute perfection. The poem is a made thing, a “little world made cunningly,” to borrow a phrase from John Donne, but more than that, it is a radically coherent little world, a world where every part connects with some other part, and every word, every phrase, every gesture of language makes sense in light of the whole. From this perspective, the pleasure of reading poetry lies in our ability to understand that inner logic of the poem, to see how shifts in language (no matter how tiny) enact shifts in mood or idea, to figure out every nuance of the speaker’s character. The pleasure of reading poetry here is precisely the pleasure of an activity, of coming to know the poem; it’s the pleasure you feel in answering questions like “what are all the systems of the poem—of sound, of diction, of mood, of idea, of character—that this particular word fits into?”
Lately I've emphasized the second of these in my classes, to the exclusion of the first. In my own reading life, though, the second came second, far later than the first, and was for many years the way I read poems only in classroom situations. This quarter, I think I'll try to slip it in somewhat later in the term--or, if not, flag it for students as a second, alternative way to read poems, and one that will (for many of them) come harder, and probably later.
Now, what poems to teach, and when?