Friday, October 22, 2010

What can be coaxed out of the surfeit of language

My graduate class this semester is centered on the writer whose name I'll render here as John Dunne. Although we're not focused on him or on poetry exclusively, at least 75% of our primary texts are in verse, and non-narrative verse to boot. This has presented some pedagogical challenges.

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.


moria said...

It's really helpful to read this, Flavia, and relevant to one of my many current teaching conundra. A lesson plan on Dunne's most famous c17 lady-successor completely bombed in my class the other day – precisely because, while I'd planned a close and deliberate reading, I wasn't prepared for just how much my students would need from me in order to accomplish it. I'll start next time with definitions of 'paraphrase,' practice in same, definitions of 'syntax,' practice in same, etc. And be better prepared for silence. And wish I had your three hours instead of my eighty minutes. Oy.

Flavia said...


Glad I could be helpful! I realize only now how much I was (incorrectly) taking as obvious with my students at INRU--they, too, could have really benefited (as I could have, as an undergrad), from a handout that listed a dozen technical poetic terms, and an instructor who explained why and how things like enjambment or feminine endings might matter to or affect the sense of a poem.

In the end, I wound up using some of my undergrad handouts with my grad students this semester. And once we'd gone through them--albeit much more quickly!--they were suddenly producing really smart, sophisticated readings. Since I don't really care if my students know all the technical terms, I sometimes forget that giving them the vocabulary is a way of pointing them to the kinds of things that matter.

FLG said...

There's a timelessness to bawdy jokes. In fact, they are probably the easiest jokes to cross time, space, and culture.

scr said...

I got nothin'. Except it makes me think of this xkcd:

scr said...

for the lazy:


Flavia said...

FLG & Bro:

Pretty much. Sex and pop culture. Ain't much else funnier. I'll have to use that xkcd at some point with my Shakespeare students.

thefrogprincess said...

Why couldn't you have taught me poetry in high school? I had teachers who inflicted poetry on us without any guidance and, as a result, I loathe the stuff. Loathe it. And I loathe it because it's completely inpenetrable and I don't have the tools necessary to make the time spent decoding worth it. (And I took latin in high school so scansion is not really the problem.)

It's something I've always regretted b/c I can appreciate and evaluate almost every other art form to some degree but I've got a visceral reaction against poetry that's the direct result of being taught it poorly.

Dr. Virago said...

OK, I gotta know: which ones would you fuck, marry, and kill?

Susan said...

My hunch is that your students will remember the class because it was bawdy, but they will have learned that this work can be fun.

Withywindle said...

What are your materials for Prosody 101?

Flavia said...

FP: my regrets! I wish I could have taught me poetry, too. It wasn't until grad school that I finally figured out what I was doing (and teaching helped me with it, as is so often the case).

Dr. V: in my defense, the basic idea wasn't mine; I was just amplifying a student's comment: we'd read some of the Amores, and in the course of comparing them to Dunne's elegies, one of my students said there wasn't much to choose between, partner-wise, when it came to Ovid and Dunne.

But I'd definitely kill Jonson. After that, it's a toss-up.

Withy: if you want to see my handouts/quizzes/assignments, email me; I'd happily send them (I don't use a text like Hollander's or Fussell's, although they have their uses). But I think the bulk of the work gets done in class. Ain't no teaching without modeling.