Prepping tomorrow's ENG 220 (Reading Poetry). This year, for the first time, I've given the students a couple of excerpts from Vendler's "Instructor's Manual" for the textbook. Not sure why, other than a desire for them to get these ideas first and foremost from her. Whether that's to give credit where credit is due, or whether it's because I no longer feel as much the Poetry Man as I did when I came to DePaul, nearly 15 years ago, now, I'm not entirely sure.
In case you don't want to read all the way through, here's the bottom line--the actionable summary, to use bureaucratic language.
Putting first things first, I want students to see, above all, how the mood in question has been freshly imagined. Second, I want them to see how this fresh imagination has been enacted structurally. How does the scene open? Where does it continue? How does it end? Third, I want them to see the elements of drama--changes in sentence structure, syntax, linguistic register, imagery, focus, stance, distance, rhythm. Fourth, I want them to see elements of pattern: repeated syntax, figures like anaphora or alliteration, repeated structures (parallelisms, catalogues, rhythms).Sounds like a checklist to me! Imagination, structure, linguistic drama, pattern. They can do that. Now I just have to find some fun poems for them to work with.
"The television speech by a candidate for political office has metaphors and similes, imagery and rhythm, lead-in and climax, alliteration and assonance, personification and division into parts. None of these aspects has any special relation to poetry; all utterance (even ordinary conversation" tends to exhibit figures of speech and features such as sound-repetition, rhythm, and imagery. It seems to me a mistake to teach, as a way in to poetry, aspects of language that are equally common in sermons and letters" (Poems, Poets, Poetry, Instructor's Manual, 2)
Another idea that could be put into action, as an assignment:
A word in a poem is used because it 'fits' the overlapping schemes of the poem better than any other word. From one angle, it fits because it is a word the speaker of the poem might 'really' use.... From another angle, it fits because it has the right number of syllables for that place in the line. From yet another, it fits because it begins with the same letter as a word closely allied to it nearby in the poem. From yet another, it fits because it disrupts the expected rhythm and therefore introduces force into the line. From yet another, it fits because it inserts semantic surprise, on the one hand, or semantic confirmation, on the other, into the semantic configuration of the poem or stanza. Substitute another word for this one and you have a loss of force, a loss of surprise, a too-short line, an inappropriate diction for the envisaged speaker, or an absence of a binding phonetic link beween a given word and another 'belonging' to it (as, say, an adjective 'belongs to' its noun). Neither orators nor letter writers take such care with every word as poets do (PPP, IM, 3)Take a poem, and have the students identify as many ways as possible that some key word "fits" into it--which means, in practice, to identify as many "schemes" (structures, patterns, etc.) as possible within the poem as a whole.
Would probably work best with a shortish poem.
Even more important, more "fundamental," though, is this: lyric poetry isn't a "linear" form. The primary focus isn't in recounting the plot, nor in espousing an idea or persuading us of an argument. "The poet uses arguments and ideas as one might use ingredients in a recipe: they are handy items to include, but they recombine to make a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts." Rather, the goal in lyric is "utter centripetal coherence."
"Instead of a firmly linear progress through successive events, we see a progressive deepening of understanding of a single thing."
"At the end of a poem, that [instigating] emotional confusion has not been abolished; it has been clarified"--poems end with what Frost called a "stay against confusion," albeit only a momentary or temporary one.
"It is important that students become accustomed to ask, 'What is the succession of feelings conveyed by the poem?" rather than 'What does this poem mean?' or 'What is the speaker saying?'"
A lyric, then, is a minutely organized whole that represents--by its imagination, its diction, its syntax, its sentences, its structural units--one or more emotions. It uses the standard resources of rhetoric (images, figures of speech, climax) but is not defined by them. It is defined, first of all, by its putting a new spin on an old emotion. We call this new spin 'imagination.' [...]***
But lyric is also defined, structurally, by its concentric or radial tendencies, its aversion to a simply linear movement, its relative lack of interest in plot or character, and -- most conspicuously -- its intense interest in presenting linguistic drama. [...]
The most important revolution in attention induced by a poetry class is the student's return to the 'surface' of language after he or she has perceived the 'depth' of feeling. [...]
Students should be guided to return to the surface--to pay attention to the words--not so they can extract 'meaning,' but so they can see the linguistic drama."
"Most daily discourse, spoken or written, is relatively predictable. Poetry is not predictable. It can begin in complacency and end in terror; or it can begin in boast and end in apology. Almost no poem closes where it began. For that reason, a poem cannot have a 'meaning.' Instad, it has many 'doings.'"
"The point of the study of any art is to be able to see what to appreciate, to be able to distinguish the well-made from the inept, and, at the furthest point of understanding, to admire the incomparably imagined and superbly accomplished."
I like that. And I like even more that the examples she gives are all from fashion: a skirt cut on the bias, a gusset under the arm, silk facing, etc. Henry Tilney would approve.