Monday, April 20, 2009

Poetry and difficulty

Poetry: it's difficult. Thus Mark Bauerlein turned to Dana Gioia's "Summer Storm" to interest his students. The first stanza:

We stood on the rented patio
While the party went on inside.
You knew the groom from college.
I was a friend of the bride.
No course on modern painting or music would avoid what's "difficult" — cubism, abstract expressionism, atonality. But in English studies, accessibility often trumps other considerations.

Granted, one cannot ask students to read what they simply cannot read. But in my teaching, I've found that asking students to read beyond their means can sometimes create genuine excitement. Poems with a significant element of opacity and mystery (one form of "difficulty") are sometimes the best choices: they can create a more level playing field, or, to switch the metaphor, a playing field with so many unpredictable spots that teacher and student together are maneuvering with attentive uncertainty. I once taught Guillaume Apollinaire's "Les Fenêtres" [The Windows] to an introductory poetry class whose students dazzled me with the attention they brought to the poem. They knew that while I had ideas, I didn't have "the answer," which seemed to give them permission to come up with ideas of their own (very good ones). Opacity and mystery are, I would suggest, what made the closing lines of Frank O'Hara's poem "Mayakovsky" so compelling when they turned up in Mad Men. Removed from the context of a classroom, these beautiful lines became an occasion of feeling. In that context, "What does it mean?" is not an anxious request for an answer but a reverent acknowledgment of enigma.

The problem with turning to something like the Gioia poem quoted above is that it tells students that they're right, that poetry should be simple and transparent, that it shouldn't resist the intelligence, that it shouldn't touch upon possibilities of thinking and feeling that might exceed one's present abilities. Some words from the poet Kenneth Koch are helpful here, from Making Your Own Days: The Pleasures of Reading and Writing Poetry (New York: Touchstone, 1999):
Reading a poem includes knowing and not knowing. Uncertainty, shock, and surprise, as well as music and knowledge, may be a part of what the reader gets.

There are, it should be added, poems that are deliberately and perhaps permanently unclear. . . . Poets may wish to give, and readers be interested in the experience of getting, shocks of intellect, emotion, and sensation without entirely knowing where they are coming from.
It's important for teachers to acknowledge that.

A related post
Frank O'Hara and Mad Men

comments: 7

Slywy said...

Is this a poem? It seems to me a rather bland statement of a not particularly interesting fact. Without context, it doesn't sing of poetry. But then a lot of poetry doesn't . . .

Michael Leddy said...

I added a link to the poem and made it clearer that I'm quoting only the first stanza. You might like the whole poem more. Or not.

Geo-B said...

Just this evening my students complained about having to read Emily Dickinson (!). She's too hard. What makes her great? Is it just because she's dead? It was great to have this to send them to.

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks, George. I'm sending my students to it on Wednesday. : )

T. said...

Two things that make me go "Aaaaaaaahh":

-the moment when loss of resistance against the epidural syringe signals that I've found the epidural space in a patient


-reading a post like this.

Aaaaaah. What a pleasure. Zhank you!

Steven Fama said...

Dear Michael,

I don't teach, so maybe I'm missing a nuance, but I don't get how you could ever ask students -- assuming they are college level -- "to read what they simply cannot read."

Reading is quite easy, once you've learned. Word follows word. If you don't recognize or are curious about a particular word that you've read, look it up.

Of course, in contrast to watching TV or even going to a movie, or looking at a painting or listening to music, reading does require active engagement of the brain. This is what some (most?) students, today, yesterday, and forever, don't like to do. The poem about the patio allows them to read without too much bothering the brain.

I appreciate you trying to break the poor thinking habits of people, via poetry in a classroom setting, and good luck!

Michael Leddy said...

Steven, I'm eternally optimistic when it comes to students. I just did a two-month trek through Bleak House in one of my classes, following the novel's serial installments (one installment per class).

In Cultural Literacy, E.D. Hirsch argued (way back when) that reading well depends upon all sorts of cultural knowledge, more than just knowing or even looking up words. And with poetry, one needs to know how to do things with poems, how to think about form, metaphor, whatever. I think that the difficulties of reading (at least for many students) are more than just looking up an occasional word. But I'm not willing to settle for, say, "Summer Storm" as my idea of what poetry can be.