Friday, January 12, 2007

Tips for 220

As most of you know, "220" is English 220 (Reading Poetry), my bread-and-butter course here at DePaul. It's required for all English majors, and I teach it three or four times a year, each time differently. This makes for rockier evaluations sometimes--I dread what mine look like from last quarter--but at least it keeps me learning, keeps me on my toes.

I realized yesterday that I'm always throwing out bits of advice to my students which I, perhaps foolishly, want them to notice and follow, even if they're not in the textbook. This quarter I'm going to post them up here as they occur to me, and I'd love to get feedback on them from all readers. If you think I should amend or discard or tweak them, let me know--and if you have tips of your own, please pass them along!

The three I annouced in yesterday's class were:
  • Never talk about the poem's "message." Poems rarely have a nice, neat "message," a "bottom line," or a "moral" they want to convey, and even when they do, to use the word "message" (or "moral," or "bottom line") makes you sound like a junior high school student. You're in college; you're an English major; it's time to sound like one.
  • Don't worry about figuring out "what the author intended." You'd have to read his or her mind to do that, and even then, the poem as written might not say or do what the author wanted. Your job is to figure out what the words and phrases and sentences in front of you are up to: what they say, what they do, and how they fit together.
  • When you read or discuss a poem, use Occam's Razor. The simplest explanation that accounts for all the facts is the one to choose. (This means, of course, that you have to look for all the facts, but that's just a matter of paying attention, and of being honest.)
By the end of this I may sound like Lazarus Long, but I think the effort will be worth it.

More as they come to me--

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Poetry reading tips are a great idea. I would recommend compiling them somewhere, even as a sidebar on this blog.

Somebody (can't remember who) once told me not to bother trying to figure out what the poem means but just to think about how the words make me feel. That was a liberating suggestion and greatly improved my openness and appreciation of poetry. Although I'm not sure how useful that is for your students who must move beyond feelings to analyze the piece before them.

Also, I must confess that when I think about my favorite poems they have both rich writing and a clear meaning. Go figure.

- Laurie (as in Justin's mom)