Small Demon
Sep 232008
 

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.)
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*Notes prepared for my freshman Humanities students.

Sep 182008
 

So I’m sitting around at home this morning looking out on the kind of beautiful fall morning that would usually pull me outdoors. My favorite yard chores are autumn yard chores. But I’m sitting inside because I picked up a head cold & sore throat at school. Colleges are viral breeding grounds. I just don’t have the oomph to get out & transplant perennials. Despite the cold, it has been a good semester so far — across the board, my students seem pretty engaged, though I remain amazed at their meager abilities as readers. And by that I mean, just the ability to get the basic prose meaning of a literary text. “That’s weird,” they say immediately in response to a poem they don’t understand (Stephen Dunn’s “Men Talk,” hardly a difficult text), dismissing it before they have even tried to suss out the meaning of all its words and images. Reading poetry, they tend to not read sentences, even when there are perfectly clear sentences. I guess they are reading lines as fragments. Perhaps it is just a very weak sense of grammar. And by grammar, I don’t mean knowledge of the names of different grammatical entities, but a sense of the way the parts of a sentence relate to each other to create a meaning. I also found out yesterday that I was one of four members of my department who had been nominated to replace our outgoing department chair, though I immediately took myself out of the running. Five years ago I wanted the job & didn’t get it, but I don’t want it now. I’ve passed that particular fork in the road. All my ambitions are literary & pedagogical these days. Inspired by Stuart O’Nan’s visit to campus, I have begun working on a short story — my first attempt in 20 years — & I’m still struggling with my long poem, pieces of which are lying around on my desk, in my notebooks, and on my hard drive like flotsam on the beach after a storm.

Sep 092008
 

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.

It Begins

 It Begins  Poetry, Teaching, Writing  Comments Off
Aug 232008
 

Whether I’m ready or not, school begins on Monday. More than most years, I have been putting off getting ready. Partly this is simply knowing already pretty much what I’ll be doing — the classes I’m teaching are ones I’ve taught many times before — but I’ve also finally begun to clarify for myself the structure of a long sequence of poems I have been working on for a long time & that has taken most of my intellectual attention. I’m reluctant to turn away from it. This is the sequence, Island Universe, that I took to the Blue Mountain Center earlier this summer, where I didn’t so much work on them as worry about them. It was a productive worry, filled with directed reading, though, & it has begun to pay off. I also need to mention James Smith at The Southern Poetry Review, who has offered some pointed & useful editorial advice over the last couple of weeks while considering some of the poems. I have never, in thirty years of sending poems to magazines, had such a sense of editorial engagement with my work. I’m grateful.

Jul 262008
 

William Major had a good column at Inside Higher Ed last week & surprisingly the comment thread generated by Major’s essay is intelligent & civil. (IHE has the most persistent anti-intellectual right-wing trolls on the internet — interesting as an anthropological study, but deeply dispiriting for regular reading.) Major’s main contention is that more full profs ought to be teaching comp & since I’m a full prof who regularly teaches comp I find it difficult to disagree. He also notes that the exploitation of adjuncts cannot be a good thing for writing instruction even though most adjuncts teaching comp do an heroic job under impossible working conditions. I’ve been teaching freshmen to write since 1979 & have developed a few theses on the subject — from the philosophical to the pedestrian — that I will now nail to the classroom door:

  1. The purpose of all education in the humanities is to disrupt students’ preconceptions about the world they live in. (Disruption is only the first step, but it is necessary.) Critical thinking is disruption of received ideas & conventional wisdom.
  2. Writing cannot be taught outside of a context of reading & responding to a variety of tests. The texts themselves ought to mix high & low culture, the familiar & the strange. Students often respond effectively to the strangeness at the margins of genre.
  3. Form follows function: students must have a reason to write before they will learn to write well. Among the writing teacher’s most important tasks is to help students discover the full implications of their particular rhetorical situation:who are they writing to? About what? Why is it important?
  4. In a typical composition class ten percent of the students will easily master the basics of style & usage, moving quickly on to considerations of paragraph structure, transitions & logical development. At the other end of the scale, ten percent will never master these things — at best, they will “aspire to the semicolon,” as Kay Ryan, the new poet laureate, said of her developmental writing students. The eighty percent of students in between these extreems are the main concern of the composition instructor.
  5. The five-paragraph essay is a blight upon the intellectual life of the nation.
  6. Writing teachers ought to be, in however modest a sense, writers themselves. They must share the struggle for high-level literacy with their students.
  7. Writing teachers ought to be sophisticated & curious readers both inside & outside their narrow disciplines. (When institutionally feasible, faculty from different departments ought to enter the Composition classroom, as visitors or full-fledged participants.
  8. Too many students are tracked into four-year institutions not designed to serve their needs.
  9. Conventions are important, but not a goal in themselves. Expectations need to be explicit, especially for the conventions of academic writing: If you want precise manuscript mechanics, fonts, etc., put it in writing. If you deduct a point for each spelling error, make that explicit. (These are really forms of social behavior, like learning to dress appropriately for different situations.)
  10. Tell students how you will evaluate them. If you are a stickler for deadlines, make them explicit.
  11. The five-paragraph essay is the enemy of deep literacy. It promotes the idea that thought amounts to a loose accumulation of examples rather than as a structure built for a purpose in which the parts depend upon one another to create an argument. (An argument is not a debate.)
  12. Colleges must recognize & justly compensate writing teachers, recognizing the labor-intensive nature of the work. The opposite situation prevails mostly under current practice, with writing teachers being at the bottom of the academic class system.
  13. The purpose of the enterprise — beyond turning out employable workers — is to contribute to the development of students as persons who are sufficiently connected to their world & to themselves that they can act successfully as free agents within our quasi-democracy. Perhaps as reagents. Which will no doubt make them less suitable as workers — we end in paradox, as usual.