September 3, 2003

Intro to Poetry – Day One

I’d have to say that of all the classes I’ve taught, Introduction to Poetry is my favorite, primarily because the kinds of students who take the course are my favorite to teach. Students who sign up for Introduction to Poetry generally sign up for one (or more) of three reasons: 1.) It’s poetry, so there’s not as much reading (which generally intimates that the student plans on doing the reading). 2.) The student really has confidence issues about poetry, knows that he or she has difficulty understanding it, and recognizes that learning is necessary to pass the course. 3.) The student has a genuine interest in poetry because he or she either already enjoys reading it or—more likely—writing it. The first group generally has never enjoyed reading, and I happen to like the challenge of teaching them how amazing the craft of reading and understanding what you read can really be. The second group is ready and willing to be helped. They’re anxious to learn, because they need to do so at first. Later, though, I find that their increased confidence in their reading abilities extend to other areas. You can see these students visibly change as students over the course of the semester. The third group is sold right away, but oddly enough, they’re more difficult to reach than the other two.

Students who already love poetry for a particular reason frequently find it difficult to find “other” reasons to enjoy poetry. These students, unfortunately, find the class much less satisfying at the beginning than the others. Many of these students have been taught that the word “poem” and “poetic” (despite being different parts of speech) can be used interchangeably. Many of them enjoy poetry because poetry is raw emotion. As one of my students explained to me yesterday, “Poetry is whatever makes you feel something. It’s more than words. It doesn’t have to be words.” According to the student, it’s just that the person writing the poem or the person reading the poem is able to express emotion. But I don’t allow these students to settle at this conclusion. As I did yesterday, I asked, “What separates poetry from anything else, then?” My students responded by saying, “Nothing, as long as it expresses emotion.” Frequently, as was the case yesterday, students feel that we commit a kind of act of hubris by trying to “limit what poetry can be.”

This conversation usually begins on the first day of class because I ask my students to consider for a moment the following question: “What makes a poem a poem? How do you know a poem when you see or hear it?” Students answers range from pointing out visual clues like line breaks and stanzas to figurative language to rhythm. Still, every time, students return to this issue of emotion, and wanting to totally explode the definition of poetry. As my students will support their argument, they say: “but even instrumental music can be poetic.” At which point we tease out the differences between poetic and poem. But students are very uncomfortable with limiting poetry. I think they feel that it also limits the emotions that can be expressed by poetry.

I ask students to consider the poem by Archibald MacLeish called “Ars Poetica” on the first day of class. The poem, named after Horace’s argument over the purpose and usefulness of poetry, creates a definition of poetry that is the sum of sweeping contradiction. It’s not an obviously emotional poem. In fact, I ask students what profound emotion the poet is attempting to express in the poem, and students are often left speechless. Usually, they counter by saying that “The poet must have felt the emotion at the time he was writing the poem.” The gist of my students’ comments is that we just don’t have access to those emotions. This is the point at which I bring MacLeish’s comments to center. MacLeish writes that “A poem should not mean / But be.” Usually a student points out that what MacLeish means here is that poem shouldn’t be hard work. The poem’s emotion should be readily accessible to the reader, and eventually students come to the conclusion that to make the reader feel that emotion is actually hard work. So, despite the contradiction of the statement, it captures the essence of poetry. Emotion is inextricable to poetry, but the art of creating that emotion is actually more definable.

So the question becomes, if it’s hard work to make a poem, doesn’t that mean that a poem is something in particular. At this point, I step in and ask if we do a disservice to poetry by making its definition too broad. In fact, don’t we make our own jobs as students of poetry much more daunting because we have no real way of knowing how or where we might encounter it? In fact, we do poetry a service by creating some boundaries. For example, poems are in the particular medium of language. Perhaps an instrumental is “poetic” but it is that way because it contains an aspect of poetry, not that it is poetry. We do a service to poets by restricting what we call poetry to a degree, because we understand that they have something in mind that they wish to communicate, and that the form, the genre matters—not just to us as readers in order to understand, but to the writers, as well.

I think we foster this “poetry can be anything” attitude to students early on in an attempt to “demystify” it. But we end up doing students a disservice in the long run—especially these students who have the inclination to enjoy poetry to start with. In our incredible desire to get students to “like” poetry, we make it more daunting. It’s much more difficult to approach poetry when it could be “anything at any moment that makes you feel something.” The possibilities are too large and the implication far too difficult to wrap one’s own head around. Students end up assuming that poems aren’t meant to be understood, and as Marianne Moore argues “we / do not admire what / we cannot understand.”

Unfortunately, the student who has learned to love poetry “because it can be anything that makes you feel something” is slow to relinquish this open-ended interpretation of the term. It causes the student to resist interpretation, and ultimately they want the poem to mean whatever emotion comes first. We spend a great deal of the semester trying to re-center poetry in language. To explain that language has boundaries for the purpose of communication. It is true. The definition of poetry, as the definition of many other words (words that poems frequently use to expose language’s slippages) is frequently debated. But we do keep coming back to something. We must if we have any hope of being understood.

One of my goals for this semester is to try to reach these students. I don’t want to close them off to all the emotive power and flexibility that poetry has to offer, but I also want to demystify poetry in another way. I want them to know that there are ways to encounter poetry. That without boundaries, there is no communication. Without communication, the poet is useless… and while there are poets with anxieties about uselessness… even those persist with the hope that communication, understanding, and empathy is possible through language. We know they do, because they continue to write.

Posted by c_jane at September 3, 2003 11:02 AM | TrackBack

That's a lovely post, CJ. I think, too, that another downside of an excessively broad definition of poetry is that it downgrades the importance of craft. It suggests that writing a poem is a congenital skill that demands no study or training whatsoever. Just emote--it's your birthright. That sounds harsh, but how do we make a case for studying the history and technique of, say, the sonnet if we've assumed from the outset that a poem is an utterly amorphous object . . .

On another note: let me know when you've settled into a routine so we can get together for coffee! (you haven't emailed me of late have you? I'm worried the mail delivery problems may be at my end and not yours . . . )

Posted by: kari at September 3, 2003 12:04 PM |

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you have very fortunate students, calamity jane. we can only hope they recognize that (as well as the fact that poetry is knowable as such).

Posted by: dave at September 3, 2003 3:33 PM |

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Thanks for such nice compliments, Dave and Kari :-) I agree, Kari... somehow poetry has turned into some kind of "right" of anyone who wants to express themselves. Instead of calling it "expression" we call it "poetry." Which really doesn't make any sense at all.

Posted by: cj at September 3, 2003 6:20 PM |

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