Over the years (probably in part because my own undergraduate education in poetry was so patchy, not to say piss-poor) I've become somewhat of a poetry evangelist. I teach scansion and metrics in all my literature courses, and have developed lesson plans, handouts, and short assignments to give undergraduates a basic tool-kit for talking about and understanding formal verse. Still, I'd never before taught a course that was primarily non-narrative poetry, and I definitely hadn't taught such a course to graduate students. When I teach lyric poetry in an undergraduate class, I assign a bunch of poems but often spend most of each class period working through just one or two, modeling how we analyze and make meaning out of verse. But did I really want to spend a graduate seminar doing that kind of close reading? Every week?
The answer, kinda, is "yes."
I've assigned a lot of secondary readings, of course, many of them focused on larger issues to do with Early Modern reading practices, editorial theory, and history of the book, so we're not just close-reading poems. But it turns out, first, that my M.A. students don't necessarily have any more experience or innate comfort with poetry than my undergrads, and, second, that it's hard to talk about poetry in general terms without first getting down into the nitty gritty of the verse.
Last week, for example, in our three-hour class we spent at least two hours working through just two poems, an elegy and a satire. With long poems especially, I sometimes refer to this process as a "forced march": we take a few lines at a time, lingering to talk about this image, that rhyme, or untangle a particularly knotty bit of syntax. It's slow and deliberate, and with undergraduates I sometimes worry that I'm losing or boring them. But this particular class was lovely. I hadn't picked out the poems myself--I'd had my students choose them--so I didn't have a lesson plan, and it felt like a process of discovery for me as much as for them. I freely confessed when I didn't understand what a given part was doing, and then made them work it out, explaining how a particular metaphor or grammatical construction was really operating, or what the possibilities were and how each one changed the meaning of the whole.
Part of what I'm trying to do, of course, is convey why I love this material, and the ways in which real scholarship is at least as playful as it is earnest. So when I start to get punchy at 8.30 at night, or feel a tangent coming on, I don't always stop myself. At one point, upon realizing that a student was trying--overly-delicately--to suggest that a particular metaphor referred to sexual intercourse, I exclaimed, "Oh! You mean the word 'sheathe'? You think he means, like, penis-in-vagina sheathing? No, for once, it's just soul-in-body sheathing." [Looking around the room.] Hey! You guys all know that, right? That 'vagina' means 'sheath'?" Later, I somehow wound up suggesting that Ovid, Jonson and Dunne were good candidates for the game fuck-marry-kill (and then had to explain that game, when it turned out only one of my students knew what I was talking about and was laughing too hard to do it for me.)
Now, if talking about penises and vaginas and the fuckability of long-dead poets is what I'm remembered for, maybe they should take my Ph.D. away from me right now. But I like to think that I'm operating, in however impoverished a way, in the tradition of my betters. Among the many tributes to the late Frank Kermode in the London Review of Books, my favorite was that written by his former student, Jacqueline Rose. Here's the part that I've been thinking of as I teach Dunne:
What is it about a literary work that enables it to persist over time? Most obviously perhaps, the "classic" in [Kermode's] definition was a text whose plurality of meaning. . . kept it alive. It is because no reader can exhaust the meaning of such a text, because any one reading cannot but select and forget. . . that it will continuously be reinvented. A classic is a work that is "patient of reinterpretation". . . . [A] work. . . survive[s] by means of what [can] be coaxed out of the surfeit of its language.If cracking bawdy jokes leads one of my students to coax something more out of a poem than she would have otherwise, then I defend the practice utterly.