Monday, September 24, 2007

A Week of Pleasures

This week, in my Reading Poetry class, we turn to chapter 3 in Vendler's textbook, "Poems as Pleasure." A few years back I put together a little checklist based on this chapter, which I may have posted before, but not recently. You could use it to send students on a Pleasure Hunt: that is, send them to an anthology of poems (they could easily use the one on the Poetry Foundation website, which is free and easily searchable) and have them come back with one example of each pleasure, to be shared or briefly written about.

If they want to hunt up elegant rhymes, by the way, they can hardly do better than to consult the lyrics to "You're the Top," which you'll find in a charming but truncated version above. For the full lyrics, splendidly annotated, look here. "Mahatma Gandhi / Napoleon Brandy" is brilliant, but the best must surely be "You're a rose; you're Inferno's Dante. / You're the nose on the great Durante." Rose to nose, Inferno's to nose, Rose to Dante (as in the Paradiso), and of course the culminating rhyme between two great Italian comedians, one divine and one secular: if that doesn't make you happy for a week, you need a sabbatical, bub.

The goal this week, pedagogically speaking, is to get my students thinking about two things.

First, I want them to learn how the pleasures they already take in poems can be named and discussed in precise terms, rather than in vague generalities ("I just liked it, I guess"), which means that they can be shared. Putting things into words generally adds to the pleasure, as a rule, in poetry as in everything else.

And, second, it gets them finding new pleasures--pleasures they hadn't thought to look for (what's "rhythm?") and pleasures that they might not actually feel themselves, but that they can notice as possibilities. ("If anyone actually likes this poem, it's probably for the rhymes." That sort of thing.)

So here's the list. Use at will, everyone.

Poems as Pleasure: A Checklist from Vendler


  • pleasure of recurrence and simple metrical pattern
  • pleasures of complex metrical pattern, or of variations in an established pattern, as when a set meter plays against the actual spoken rhythm
  • pleasures of match between sound and sense, rhythm and emotion or idea


  • the simple pleasure of sounds that match, w/ various numbers of syllables
  • more complex pleasure of sameness in difference
  • i.e., rhyming monosyllables with polysyllables
  • i.e., rhyming different parts of speech
  • i.e., rhyming words w/ some meaning-relation (same or opposite)
  • i.e., rhyming words that are spelled very differently, but w/ same sound

Alliteration, Consonance, Assonance

  • --same pleasures as in rhyme, but elsewhere in the words
  • --the pleasures of finding links between key words in the poem, or of watching a set of sound-associations emerge (as when certain sounds seem associated, in this poem, with particular characters or ideas or events)

Stanza shape

  • --pleasure of recognizing some tradition (ballad stanza, ABBA quatrain, sonnet, couplet)
  • --pleasure of a tour-de-force: i.e., use of a really difficult stanza
  • --pleasure of watching some existing form adapted or given a new twist
  • --pleasure of “fit” between stanza form and inner structure of the poem


  • --pleasure of match between structure and content (form enacting content)
  • --i.e., of well-used line breaks
  • --i.e., of torque on syntax or word order


  • --pleasure of self-referential puns (i.e., references to feet, to lines, to rooms / stanzas)
  • --pleasure of other sorts of puns
  • --pleasure of changes in diction or discourse, or echoes from diction to diction


  • pleasure of watching a poem “open out” onto broader vistas of myth, theology, cultural reference
  • pleasure of “getting it”: being part of the poem’s audience (and thus possessing cultural capital?)
  • pleasure of watching a seemingly incoherent poem reveal an underlying coherence


  • pleasure of seeing ideas or argument compressed into memorable form
  • pleasure of shifting kinds of imagery (visual, auditory, tactile, etc.; or from descriptive to metaphoric) in some order or pattern
  • pleasure of having your own perceptions sharpened


  • pleasure of the game of thrust & parry, or of watching the structure take shape
  • pleasure of poems answering other poems
  • pleasure of watching old arguments presented from new angles of approach (new characters, scenes, speakers, moves, etc.)


  • pleasure of the fit or contrast between situation and type of utterance (style, genre, tone)
  • pleasure of the poet’s subtlety in handling some painful or difficult emotional material (what we might call the pleasure of decorum)
  • pleasure of unsubtlety, as a poet shifts from figurative or roundabout language to simplicity


  • the pleasures of “what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed”
  • pleasures of “credible representation” of some powerful feeling, followed by the pleasures of assent: “yes, that’s how it feels; that’s how life is”
  • pleasures of finding a vicarious voice: i.e., a poet who speaks for or to you

A New Language

  • the pleasure of a poet not sounding like anyone else: the pleasure of distinctiveness

These are not the only pleasures out there--I think of character pleasures as a distinctive category, for example--but they'll do for a start.

1 comment:

E. M. Selinger said...

Note to self: some pleasure poems for discussion--

"Those Winter Sundays"
"may i feel, said he"
"As I went out one evening..."

maybe "The Man w/ the Night Sweats"?