Thursday, June 24, 2010

Help a Prof Out (2): Modern Poets?

Thanks to everyone who weighed in about my survey course ideas! A number of voices saying that they like the variety that a survey brings to the table, whether it's organized by theme (as in the syllabus I posted yesterday) or simply by the order that poems and poets appear in a book (as I mentioned in passing).

As my friend Sara put it, over on Facebook:

I'm answering as someone who could be one of your students. I've never taken a poetry class and would have a lot of trepidation about doing so. I really like the themes approach, because I feel that I'll probably like some of the poems in each section whereas with a chronological or authors approach I'd be very afraid of not liking or understanding whole sections of the course, and hence I wouldn't take such a course. Also as a very casual visitor to the world of poetry I'd want to be exposed to more than 8 or 9 poets.

That's a useful perspective, and a persuasive one--it's always a pleasure to watch students discover a poet or poem they love, and often those discoveries happen while splashing through the shoals of charming minor poets, rather than swimming with the big fish of the canon.

I use the phrase "charming minor poet" advisedly, thinking of the opening of an essay I once wrote about Hayden Carruth:

When Bantam books shipped Hayden Carruth's anthology The Voice That Is Great Within Us to likely reviewers, he got a bitter letter in reply. Its author, a friend of John Crowe Ransom, had looked in vain for the "tougher, more philosophical" work that made Ransom a "serious and important" figure. "He complained that I had used only the slighter poems, the elegiac and gently ironic poems," Carruth recalled in an essay the following year. In a word, "he accused me of turning Ransom into 'a charming minor poet.'"

"Well," Carruth muses in response, "charming minor poet is what we usually call Sir Thomas Wyatt, George Crabbe, John Clare, Padraic Colum, and many others, and personally I wouldn't mind belonging to that company at all, at all. What else is there, except oblivion on one hand and the fluke of greatness on the other?"

Before I commit to a survey course, though, let me say a word or two about the other kind of modern poetry course I've often taught, and see what you think about that.

The second model I've used is an author-based course. I choose some number of poets--8, 9, 10--and have students order either a Collected or Selected poems by each. We then read widely and variously across each poet's career.

The advantage of a course like this is that it enables both me and my students to read poems that never make it into the anthologies, either because they are (shall we say) charming minor work or because they're simply too long. The charming minor poems of Prufrock and Other Observations, for example, are my favorite part of the book. A handful of middle-aged poems by Allen Ginsberg (like the two called "Don't Get Old") are as good as Howl or Kaddish, maybe better, at least to my middle-aged ear. The experience of reading all of H. D.'s Trilogy is radically different from the experience of reading anthologized excerpts--it's much more fun, much closer to a fantasy novel, to my ear at least. Auden's "Letter to Lord Byron" is a joy, but nowhere in the Norton; poets like Stevie Smith, A. R. Ammons, and Robert Hayden come alive when read at length, but I'm not sure they have the same appeal in short bursts.

(The opposite is true of other poets, of course. Every time I teach the three or four poems by William Bronk in Cary Nelson's Modern American Poetry I fall in love with his work, but to read him at length, a book or more? Help!)

Author-based courses also let me hitch my teaching more closely to my scholarship. When I'm writing about poet X, I can simply order up a book by him or her; when I've spent years getting to know the whole career of poet Y, I can take my students on a guided tour.

Finally, the books for author based courses are more expensive--but they can be really lovely, a physical pleasure to hold and to read. There's something quite satisfying about working with a Library of America Collected Poems, or one of the slim, elegant American Poets Project volumes, or just a book of poems, rather than a Norton. Books designed for readers, not for students, I mean.

Why, then, don't I always teach an author-based course?

Because then--ah, then!--I have to choose. And, because I'm a liberal child of the '70s, I can't just choose blindly. No, I want to choose a proper mix of genders, races, aesthetics...and if it's the Modern Poetry course, a mix of US and non-US poets. And I can't have more than 9. And that, friends, is hard, for a ditherer like me. My desktop and notebooks are littered with lists of authors, sometimes gathered by theme, sometimes just by affection:
HD (f)
Moore (f)
Smith (f)
Rukeyser (f)
Nine poets: four women, five men, but only two and a half from outside the US (Eliot counts twice), and only one poet of color. Argh! And would I rather teach Moore than Niedecker? Or Millay, whom students often like? And what about Auden, and Ammons, and O'Hara, and Merrill (both of whom taught wonderfully last quarter)? What about Hugh MacDiarmid, whose little aubade "Morning" was a surprise hit back in May?
The Day loups up (for she kens richt weel
Owre lang wi' the Nicht she mauna lig)
And plunks the sun i' the lift aince mair
Like a paddle-doo i' the raim-pig.
Oh, I don't know, friends, I just don't know. Any thoughts? Any advice?

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