Monday, January 28, 2008

A defense of poesy

In my position, I teach mostly seniors. Some graduate students, some juniors, an occasional bunch of sophomores, but mostly seniors. And term after term, I find myself, in every literature course, putting on the same pep-rally-cum-lecture sometime during the first couple weeks of the semester, the one in which I explain why poetry is worth our study, and try to convince the dubious students that they have all the tools they need to read poetry.

How is it that I need to be putting on this show every term? To senior English majors? What part of the system is failing them, convincing them that reading poetry is an activity shrouded in mystery, one that requires the mediation of some ambassador from the secret priesthood of poetry interpreters? They report to me that they don’t read poetry in other period classes, or that the syllabi in such classes make only occasional and brief nods in the direction of poetry. They report that the reason so many English majors choose to specialize in 20th-century American literature is that poetry in 20c courses gets seriously subordinated to the likes of Faulkner and Sallinger. And then they show up in my early British courses in order to fulfill a breadth requirement and are petulant and inconvenienced by the presence of so many line-breaks on the reading schedule.

Listen here, folks: poetry pretty much WAS literature until about three hundred years ago, and criticism on poetry laid the foundation for pretty much all the work that gets done in this profession. To understand poetry in English, a reader must have the following advanced qualifications: fluency in English. Sometimes not even that, if you’re reading a poet whose work communicates much of its content through its sound, like Hopkins. If you teach English but hate poetry, ask yourself whether your hatred doesn’t have, fundamentally, to do with your fear that you don’t get it. And if, in honesty, that’s at the root of things, get over yourself, and stop communicating that shit to your students.

I know, of course, that the erudite and sophisticated readers of this blog need no persuasion, but that’s really my point: poetry isn’t, wasn’t in the past, and shouldn’t be the province of the erudite and sophisticated. It’s pop music without the scaffolding of the music. And no one should feel intimidated by Coldplay.


Lisa B. said...

>>get over yourself, and stop communicating that shit to your students.

I'm pretty sure Shelley says that in the middle part of "A Defence. . . ." Doesn't he?

Flavia said...

I know. Sigh. I spend three weeks in my Intro to Lit Analysis class on poetry, working my students pretty hard, and I do a crash course on same in Brit Lit I and Shakespeare. . . and yet in my 400 and MA classes I find myself needing to do essentially the same thing. I've already made up a handout of poetic terms and prepared a lesson on scansion and close-reading for tonight for a class in which my students really shouldn't need it--but probably will.

On the dubiously positive side, though: this class has a surprisingly large enrollment, and scansion on Day One and reading all of Shakespeare's sonnets for next week might inspire the weaker students to drop sooner rather than later.

Renaissance Girl said...

Ain't no dubious to that positive side, Flavia.