1. Prologue: the point of this post
We literary critics often get accused of not talking enough about actual literature. On one's blog, that is probably forgivable, partly because it generally seems more pressing to talk about what is happening currently in the world than to do long close-readings. Writing about literature in a meaningful way every day is hard!
Still, here is an excerpt from the final lecture I gave in one of my classes this fall. Maybe it will give readers who do other things in life some idea of what people like me do in the classroom. And for my colleagues in English, I'm posting this with a request for feedback and criticisms.
2. Another Prologue: the course
This fall I taught an introduction to the major course we have at Lehigh called “Working With Texts.” Though the course is supposed to have a particular focus (on developing close reading skills and the methods of criticism), how we teach it is actually up to us. I decided to do a unit on each of the three literary forms –- poetry, fiction, and drama. With the poetry, I used an old textbook called Understanding Poetry, edited by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren. I had found this anthology in a used bookstore, and was really impressed by both the selection of poems and the analyses of many of the poems included. I find this better than the usual poetry anthologies. With those, students are highly dependent on my (subjective) readings of the poems. In Brooks and Warren, studying poetry is at least partly a matter of objective comprehension. They also helpfully had sections of poems without analysis, which are necessary if you want to get students to apply lessons they learned from the textbook editors to something else. In fiction, I decided to go with just short stories –- no novels. Novels in a course like this can bog you down. Swamped with short story anthologies, I went with Updike's The Best American Short Stories of the Century, probably a little arbitrarily (it worked out just fine). And finally, I used a more-or-less generic drama anthology, edited by R.S. Gwynn, for the drama section of the course. There are several good drama texts out there, but this one seemed to be a bit cheaper than some others. And the introduction is helpful.
The result was a course in which students got exposure to stuff by the following authors:
William Shakespeare (some sonnets, and also Othello), Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Walt Whitman, A.E. Housman, T.S. Eliot, Robert Lowell, Robert Frost, Theodore Roethke, Billy Collins, Willa Cather, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Eudora Welty, Vladimir Nabokov, Katherine Anne Porter, John Updike, Raymond Chandler, Sherwood Anderson, Jean Toomer, Richard Wright, Alice Munro, Carolyn Ferrell, Tim O'Brien, Gish Jen, Jhumpa Lahiri, Henrik Ibsen, and August Wilson. Not bad, for 14 weeks.
Blog. I also used a course blog to get students to find out more about the authors we were reading. For the most part they used simple web searches. Some students took it a little further, and wrote more opinionated or personalized comments on the blog. It was moderately successful. The students didn't comment much on each other's entries, and I got the sense that they weren't reading each other's entries all that much either, so some of the functionality of the blog format might have been lost. Maybe next time around I'll try and evolve the uses of the course blog a bit more.
3. The lecture itself (excerpt, with emphasis on the sections where I was talking about poetry)
Working With Texts is not meant to be a definitive course, in the sense of “I'll never look at a work of literature the same way again.” Studying English and American literature is an incremental process – you'll only know it all once you've read lots and lots of books. Over the course of a good English major experience, you should read upwards of 100 novels, 300-400 poems, and maybe 50 plays. But even if you've read that many books (and I mean, you've read and understood every page – you've given a real block of time to each text), you've actually only scratched the surface of major literature. For each author you read, there are likely to be 10 other authors from the same period you haven't read. And the same goes for even the authors you have read – there are ten other books waiting for you. The point is, English literature is very, very big.
Unlike, say, an Engineering major, you don't graduate with an English major as a capable expert in literature. A graduating English major is probably better described as an exceptionally well-prepared novice, someone who might be able to pick up a novel or a poem from virtually any period, and make sense of it. Also, English majors have a pretty good sense of how to continually find new things to read, which might capture their interest. It’s partly a matter of recognizing names and titles in the library or bookstore, but it’s also the ability to size up new things you haven’t heard of, that you might just happen to pick up.
Though we did do some close technical work at various points in the term, the course was not meant to be highly technical in nature. We did the most technical work with poetry and poetics, and the reason for that is that poetry – especially poetry from early periods really requires it. The romanticized notion that you pick up a poem and are vaguely moved by its contents doesn't hold up for any except the easiest poetry. The best poetry involves the reader (or the listener) in an intensified experience of language itself. It can't be read casually.
I believe it's extremely important that English majors develop some familiarity with the incredible diversity and complexity of English language poetry. The idea of a serious awareness of the inner workings of poetry is kind of a dying art in English departments around the country, and its decline suggests that poetry as a whole may be in a little trouble. In earlier eras, people gathered around campfires to hear poetry recited. People memorized poems, people felt it in a very natural, organic way. Now, however, it's not always clear what the role of poetry is for ordinary people (i.e., for people who aren't English majors, and even for many who are). How many people actually seek it out? How many people would read poems if their English teachers didn’t require them to do so?
During the semester, I did mention one situation in which poetry seemed to be spontaneously important, and that is in finding language that helps us deal with extremely difficult events. Poems were important all around America after 9/11, and people dealing with smaller, more personal kinds of grief (such as the death of a loved one) often turn to poetry for some kind of solace. You heard people reciting Auden on the radio. So: another role for poetry might be as a kind of substitute for religion – which can also provide such solace – in a secular society. It’s a potentially universal language of reflection. But that turn to the reflective, while a hopeful sign for poetry as a literary form, is still a somewhat more limited role for poetry than what one saw in earlier eras. What about poetry that celebrates life, that celebrates love? What about romantic poetry, comic poetry?
Is romantic poetry now just a joke?
Is comic poetry now the exclusive territory of “slam poets” and rappers? (When was the last time you heard or read a “literary” poem (meaning, not a rap song) that actually made you laugh?) [Discuss. Students pointed out that one way in which poetry stays alive is in the lyrics to popular music. James Taylor and Bob Dylan were mentioned. The students have a point, though poetry set to music is nevertheless something different from poetry for the page. Still, there is a whole course waiting to be taught – not sure if it will be by me – on the relationship between poetry and music.]
If we had this class to do over again, I might have started the work on poetics earlier and shown the value of it in somewhat greater depth. It's good if you can figure out the meter or rhyme scheme of a poem now, but it's also important that you see how these aspects of style might affect the fundamental meaning of a poem.
The other place where some technical details are important is with drama, so I asked you to study theatrical terms like the 'tragic flaw' (hamartia), open and closed denouements, and catharsis (release). The significance of these was a bit easier to identify. Most people would certainly agree that characters like Othello or Desdemona have a tragic flaw, though we might not necessarily agree on what it is. Most people would also agree that it's very important to a play like A Doll's House that it ends with an open denouement – Nora is leaving her husband, but what happens next is wide open. And finally, the fight between Troy and Cory near the end of Fences seems to be the moment at which a kind of catharsis is occurring. The fight between them is a big, physical one that brings to the surface all the suppressed (or merely verbal) hostility and tension that seemed to be building up throughout the earlier part of the play. After the fight ends – and Troy wins – something is different, both for him and for the other characters. It's not so important whether he wins or loses the fight, so much as he gets to have it all out.
Interestingly, these technical terms of drama might be helpful in understanding other kinds of stories, including novels and films. They are essentially terms that have to do with human psychology – how human beings experience conflicts, and respond to them. Serious drama is always driven by conflict. And good actors in serious plays have the potential to show us the visceral experience of individuals who genuinely don't know what they are going to do next. Is Othello really going to kill Desdemona? Is Nora going to leave her husband? The actor will always know what is going to happen (and the audience will sometimes know), but a good actor will show us the experience of a person who is genuinely unsure. At its best, the result is that the audience itself doesn’t know what it would do in that same situation. (This is very hard to do)
The essential definition of poetry
All cultures have some form of poetry. And nearly all early poetry was written in some kind of formal meter. The essential quality of poetry then was that it was meant to be recited aloud. It descended from a pre-literate tradition of epic storytelling. Rhyme helped people remember how poems went.
But modern poetry goes by different rules. When it doesn't rhyme, and when there's no meter, it's nevertheless true that there is an essential element, something that all poetry must have for it to be called “poetry” and not “prose,” and that is the rhythmic use of language. There also many, many secondary characteristics that we discussed. Chief among them is the intense and precise use of language (especially important in modern poetry). The best modern poets aim to crystallize some observation or insight about the world around them in such a way that it causes us to look at the same things they are looking at in a fresh way.
A great example of this is William Carlos Williams's poem again: So much depends/ Upon a Red Wheelbarrow/ glazed with rain water/ beside the white chickens.” That line, “so much depends” does everything in this poem. The first thing it does is, heighten your sensibilities. Whatever this poem is about, it is about something that is very important to the speaker. Secondly, the line makes us look at the wheelbarrow differently. Perhaps we are (at first) a little incredulous. So much depends on that? It's an everyday object. But then... but then... a wheelbarrow is, in the life of a farm, a very important object. It potentially carries everything. And it is, despite its incredible features as a tool for farmers, kind of a beautiful object. Imagine a red wheelbarrow, sparkling wet and clean after a rainfall...
In just a few words, Williams's poem changes the reader's perception of an everyday object. In some sense, then, those brilliant first three words are also even bigger. They might be a kind of commentary on language itself. Williams, in my view, reminding us how much can be done with just a few words, how powerful language itself is. He is saying, not just that so much depends upon a red wheelbarrow, but rather, “So much depends upon -- the next five words of this poem.”
That is poetry at its best.