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.
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.
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.