I’m sort of old-fashioned in that I tell my creative writing students that they have a responsibility to the truth of their own experience and that the way they use language reveals the extent to which they have taken that responsibility seriously. Listening to Sarah Palin reminds me of nothing so much as listening to an unprepared & incurious freshman discussing the reading for the day. After listening to Palin for a while, I feel stupider than when I began. In recent days I have found that immediately after listening to Palin, reading a big chunk of Beckett or Chekov is the best antidote. See also: The poetry of Sarah Palin — not since rumsfeld have we had such a master.
Instructions: Begin, in so far as it’s possible, without preconceptions and do not rush to make a judgment about whether you like or dislike a poem, or whether it’s good or bad; most of all, do not dismiss mysteries or difficulties as weird or incomprehensible (at least) until you have worked through the steps below. Read the poem aloud. Now read it again to yourself without (yet) trying to understand it in order to get a feel for the whole thing.
1. Read the sentences (not the lines) for the basic, literal meaning of the poem. What is the setting? Who is speaking? What is the tone? (Tone is usually defined as the speaker’s attitude toward the subject matter as revealed through the speaker’s word choices, rhythms, etc.) Are there words you don’t know the meanings of? If so, look them up. Does the title of the poem offer a key to the situation the poem describes or enacts?
2. After you understand the basic meaning of the text, look at the images (clusters of words that represent a sense impression: sight, sound, taste, etc). Do the images suggest anything more than their literal meaning? Do they rise above simple description? Are there patterns of images? Does the author use figurative language, i.e., metaphors or similes, etc? If so, what is the effect of these figures?
3. Stick to the actual text of the poem & do not import “explanations” for things you don’t quite understand from outside the poem. Not yet, anyway. For instance, say you are reading a poem in which the speaker seems to shift from one subject to another without transition. It might be tempting to say, “Well, maybe the speaker is drunk.” But unless there is a glass of whisky in the poem, you have no warrant to make such an assumption. Sometimes you have to simply “bracket” certain parts of the poem and save them for later analysis; this is far better than trying to “solve” every mystery on first (or second) reading.
4. Now look at the ways in which the lines break up or coincide with the poem’s sentences. Does this patterning affect the rhythm (and thus the tone) of the poem? Is the poem broken into stanzas? If so, are the stanzas integral to the organization of the subject matter? Do the lines of the poem seem to have a regular number of syllables? (Alternatively, do stanza contain lines that vary in syllable count according to some pattern?) Do the lines have a regular number of stressed syllables & if so are they evenly distributed in the line? If the lines do not show patterning of syllables or stresses, is there some other principle of patterning at work? Does the poem contain rhymes? If it does, do they fall into a particular pattern? If there is a pattern, is it simple or elaborate? What are the effects on the reader’s understanding of the patterns you have discovered?
5. Are there any hints about the larger context in which the poem was created? Time period? Author’s biography? Major historical or cultural events? How about connections to other literary texts, especially the bible or other mythological texts; also Shakespeare.
6. Now read the poem aloud again. At this point you are prepared to begin to make judgments about the poem’s meaning. Whether you “like” the poem or not is of interest to you personally, but not very important in the larger scheme of things. (Another way of saying this would be: Until you have read a lot of poems in the manner outlined above, you like or dislike of a particular poem is uninformed and thus not very valuable to the wider conversation about poems.)
*Notes prepared for my freshman Humanities students.
Perhaps the list I posted below is a hoax, but as I said in my correction, Palin’s ideology is just fine with banning books. I grew up among Palin’s people, I know them. They are intolerant, aggrived, and deeply anti-intellectual. And homophobic. Now it appers that, while the particular list may have been made up, Palin did attempt to get books taken off the Wasilla Public Library’s selves because she found them personally offensive.
When my students read a poem or story, they invariably create suppositions about the characters / plot to flatten out ambiguities. They are very uncomfortable with ambiguities. I was using the Lucinda Williams song “Changed the Locks” yesterday in creative writing to demonstrate parallel syntax & repetition. (I’ll get to Whitman, traditionalists need not hyperventilate.) The song’s third verse is:
I changed the kind of car I drive
so you can’t see me when I go by
And you can’t chase me up the street
and you can’t knock me off of my feet.
I changed the kind of car I drive.
This comes after veerses in the same structure with the lines, “I changed the locks on my front door” & “I changed the number on my phone.” Most students in the class were reluctant to see the combination of violence & eroticism in the pharse “knock me off my feet,” erasing it in favor of a purely sentimental reading. And when pushed, they would begin to make up stories that have no warrent in the text of the song: “Well, maybe she . . .” I have found this response almost universal among my creative writing & literature students.
If Modernism begins with the death of God & the subsequent plunge into subjective experience in Western culture, it remains true that old traditions keep turning up in new forms. Whereas Modernism dismisses folk beliefs for an urban cosmopolitanism, it has never managed to completely banish the old atavisms of the folk. And good thing, too, since those deep & shadowy forces continually challenge the progressivism of Modernism. All of which is prologue to reporting that I read two books this summer, one after the other, that play with their relations between the old and the new. The first, The Old, Weird America, by Greil Marcus is ostensibly a report on the creation of The Basement Tapes by Bob Dylan & The Band in 1967, but is, as the title suggests, a meditation on Dylan’s reinvention of American folk music; the book is actually at its strongest when discussing Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music [Amazon link] and the country banjo player & singer Dock Boggs. Boggs is a remarkable character in Marcus’ telling, a rounder & a poet of the old America.
Dock Boggs made a primitive-modernist music about death. Primitive because the music was put together out of junk you could find in anyone’s yard, hand-me-down melodies, folk-lyric fragments, pieces of Child ballads, mail-order instruments, and the new women’s blues records they were making in the northern cities in the early years of the 1920s; modernist because the music was about choices you made in a world a disinterested god had plainly left to its own devices, a world where only art or revolution, the symbolic remaking of the world, could take you out of yourself. [Marcus153-154]
I also read Alasdair Gray’s Poor Things, which is about the old, weird Scotland; or rather, about the cusp between the old, weird Scotland & the modern nation of the same name. And about the hubris of science & the power of the inexplicable. Gray’s novel recounts the life of Bella Baxter, who may or may not be the creation of the deformed giant & scientific genius Godwin Baxter, whom Bella refers to as “God,” short for Godwin, which is also a sly reference to William Godwin, Mary Shelley’s father. Like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the story is composed of multiple narratives, different voices, documents, footnotes, maps, & bits of historical fact. The novel presents Godwin as, like Frankenstein, half scientist & half mage. And his creation, Bella, is beautiful, not monstrous (though she has monstrous appetites). Gray’s novel explores possible responses to what we might think of as the Modernist dissolution of epistemological certainty & personal identity. But none of these abstractions really capture the deep, sweet, weirdness of the novel.