Sunday, April 12, 2020

A Personal Note To A Friend On Reading Not Beating Poetry

‪Just a note on torturing poems to their deaths and burials.‬

‪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.

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