Friday, December 4, 2009

Kale smoothies.

At the end of a semester teaching a senior research seminar on Donne, I've been surprised to realize how hard Donne is. Of course I know that Donne's work presents certain interpretive challenges, and makes a complex set of sometimes contradictory claims. But I've been surprised by how hard he is at the level of the sentence--much more so than Milton. Milton has a reputation for being difficult, largely because of his Latinate syntax and the grandeur of his concerns. Still, students get into Milton's groove in a couple of weeks....they learn to "speak Milton," and then the reading is much less overt in its demands.

Donne, perhaps because we tend to read him in small, lyric-sized chunks, has the reputation for being perhaps more confrontational than challenging to readers. But I've taught courses on Milton, and now I've taught Donne, and I can report that Donne remains much more difficult than Milton--to parse syntactically, to pin down argumentatively--even at the term's end. My students are still struggling, and I frankly don't blame them because I have to work, and read the poems and prose out loud a time or two, in order to "get" them, insofar as I can be said to "get" them.

I made kale smoothies for our breakfast this morning. (Don't gag: kale, soaked almonds, soy milk, and frozen peaches--it's actually pretty fantastic, though it's better with frozen blueberries, whose taste and color more nearly resembles the kale, and so it camouflages that wince-inducingly healthy ingredient a little bit.) The Things drank them, and even enjoyed them. But there was never a point at which they forgot they were drinking something aggressively Good For Them, never a point where they stopped being aware of the daunting material particularity of each element of the smoothie. I think that's what it's been like for my students to read a semester of Donne. And, at times, for me too.


Moria said...

1. research seminar on Donne. WANT. WANT NOW.

2. kale smoothies. ALSO WANT. NOW PLEASE.

::bashes head against pile of research, which contains neither Donne nor smoothies::


Flavia said...

I'm teaching an M.A. seminar on Donne (perhaps solo, or perhaps as the course's through-line for investigating the issues & genres he's involved in) next fall--which I suspect will be roughly equivalent to your senior research seminar.

May seek your expertise closer to the date. But will start drinking my kale smoothies now.

jw said...

It is a rare moment when I don't want to move into your house, but kale smoothies does the trick. I do not want to be within 500 miles of kale smoothies. Kale is the most foul green thing on God's green earth. Kale was produced as a result of The Fall, or carried by Satan from Pandemonium or something. Not even the perfection of blueberries could ever rescue kale from its horribleness. Perhaps this metaphor explains the abysmal state of my productivity this last six months.

While you're undoubtedly right about the relative difficulties of Donne and Milton, I'm not sure that semantic difficulty is the whole story. Milton is rigorous and demands rigor. Donne, even in his seriousest, is... I struggle to find the word that evokes the pleasure and embraces the tonal variety of his poetry. When I read anything by Donne, there's a joy that bubbles up even when the subject is serious.

I have never engaged seriously with Donne, and, frankly, I revert to pleasure-reader mode whenever I start in on him. While I find pleasure in Milton as well, it's a different type of pleasure. I'm doing a crappy job of identifying it, but for now I'll call unpacking Milton the pleasure of brilliant craftsmanship, and unpacking Donne is the pleasure of serendipity.

The real point is that I find brilliant craftsmanship too weighty sometimes, but that never (?) happens with serendipity. Even when the work of reading poetry gets too much, Donne never fails to bring joy.

Dang, I'm not sure I buy my own argument now. I still hate kale, though.

Bardiac said...

Wow, what a delightful struggle to spend a semester with Donne! I agree, he's utterly difficult, and feels far less "stable" theologically to me.

JW cracked me up. Perfection!

Renaissance Girl said...

JW: Whither your western fortitude? your mountain bowels?