It’s honestly not me taking pleasure in exercising such inventive powers as I have. It’s only that I have no other gear when I drive.
I can easily read poems without giving them much thought and get a surface impression of them. And that’s fine. But then I really don’t adequately understand them and if I’m to move, either just for myself or for some other reason, beyond that impression I know of no half way measure.
I’m driven, I drive, in that one gear either to come to what I feel is a satisfactory understanding of the poem or to give up as being unable to. And what makes for a satisfactory understanding is to have a complete sense of what is going on in the poem from first line to last, from first word to last.
Obviously, this can be overdone, leading into a descent into the picayune and trivial. But I don’t judge myself guilty of that. I do acknowledge some obsessiveness in this, like a dog gnawing on a juicy bone, to borrow an image.
My test for myself is: do I understand the poem well enough to teach it, as I taught poems for two years to freshman English students.
I never ever went into a classroom without a comprehensive view of the work or works I was teaching. Not that I stood there and lectured and force fed, but I knew where I wanted to wind up by way of questions and hopefully answers and some discussion and without being dogmatic.
Candidly, I can’t imagine a teacher doing any less in teaching a work, of not having what lawyers call “a theory of the case.”
I had only one experience of failing to understand a poem to my satisfaction by Wallace Stevens. I don’t remember the poem. But it was just an awful class. Torture really, for me and the kids.
Same btw for writing papers. I was psychically unable to write a paper on any work or works until I had, you should pardon the metaphor, wrestled it to the ground and could stand behind an argument that accounted for it comprehensively.
So, in sum, there is in me no desire to preen or show off or dazzle anyone. Only, there is a restless and driven desire wholly to understand what I’ve first read and responded to.