Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Seductions of Can't

I dislike those descriptions of poetry courses (not that students often read them) that begin from the negative. "The instructor knows that you are scared shitless of poetry," the description goes, if more euphemistically than that, "and we will spend an entire semester trying to cure you; at the end, you will know some shit." (I think of Kai Gaspar's poem about the traumatized boy who refuses to shit, then aims to punish a cat for watching him make kukae in the woods. See Tinfish 18.5: The Book). I dislike these descriptions precisely because they are true. Students arrive in class tremulous, afraid, risk averse (pun intended after the fact). Negation stains the air like a squid's dark ink. Dis-ease is our dis-comfort as we arrange our chairs in a circle, the better to share our intuitions about the poems we read. We are not immediately readers, but a support group for poetry phobics. (Can you believe I found that link? I can't.)

The poetry professor is a general whose field of battle is a difficult terrain. She requires the full support of her metaphorical army: support staff, infantry, advanced weaponry and, above all, a strategy. She needs Lao-Tzu at her side, maybe even a Prussian master, like Clausewitz. She knows her pen is not mightier than her students' shields, at least not at first.

I have some success as a teacher of poetry, perhaps because I insist on activity, often frenetic activity, in class. Students do exercises, they act out their poems, they mix them up, they cut and collage. We use instruments like scissors and glue, which many of them have not used since early in elementary school. We laugh. When we read poems together, I insist that they read in human voices (lest we drown), demanding that they read passages over and again until their voices unbuckle the belt of monotone wrapped around the syllables that press from their mouths.

And still students come to me in my office and say they can't. Or, as we say in Hawai`i, "cannot." Oddly, Pidgin makes things shorter, but the word "cannot" is kept long, emphasis on the second syllable, used in sentences with the frequency of the word "but," which only in Hawai`i that I know comes not between clauses, but at the ends of sentences. "I went to the bookstore but." "I like that but." Most often, these students look uncomfortable. Doubtless a lot of this comes from their fear that their "cannot" reduces their grade, that there is something they cannot get, like metaphor, like an A.

But in class, as in the life of my family and non-academic friends, there are those for whom "cannot" seems a pleasure, not pain. Their "I just don't GET it's" are spoken with emphasis, with all the life that their reading of poems out loud lacks. There's meter there, an exaltation of form, as Annie Finch might put it, even in this context--for their not getting it is definitely form, formula, repetition as sure as any poetic refrain. As the poet and poetry teacher in my husband's family, I am occasionally and ritually asked what makes poetry poetry, what makes it good, what makes it enjoyable, and so on. But I am not really asked. What might be questions come out as statements:

--I can't understand it.
--I can't write it.
--I can't figure out what's good and what's bad.
--I can't see things that way.
--I just don't get it.

Chalk it up to the verbal jousting that goes on in families, but this is no call to explain or to appreciate or even to read out loud. This is the door slamming shut, with all the pleasure that slamming shut offers us. It's a poetry tantrum for the benefit of the poetry parent.

I wonder how to use this energy, this aggression, toward poetry. Sometimes I say that we are all speaking in words and poems are made of words and so we can read poems. Sometimes I say this poem (by Dickinson, say) is difficult, but we've all felt despair and enjoyed riddles and thought about death and sex (yes, "Wild Nights" comes out first in my quiver). Then again, sometimes I offer up Camille Paglia's reading of Dickinson as an absolute literalist. She says she's sticking a needle in her eye. Well, damn it, it's a real needle and real eye and you'd better wince because she's coming after you next!

My poetry friends Hazel Smith and Lisa M. Steinman have each written textbooks on poetry in the past couple of years. Hazel Smith's The Writing Experiment is directed at creative writers, while Steinman's Invitation to Poetry: The Pleasures of Studying Poetry and Poetics is directed to creative readers. Both are marvelous texts. Each is written in a professional discourse; Smith's sometimes sounds like a sociology text whose concluding paragraphs are abstracts of what just transpired. Steinman's book projects a patience that makes me jealous; if I often feel like a hare in my reading and writing, she walks like the local tortoise, Ku`i, steadily toward her goal. She wins. Her first sentence is a thesis of sorts: "The purpose of this book is most simply to talk about how to read and understand poetry." Yet the title offers the hope of pleasure, surely what we all wish to give our students and family members. I have only started Steinman's book but can already see use value (there's pleasure there, too) in chapters about the sonnet and about "intertextual conversations."

I suspect that these books will be aids to pleasure for many students, especially those pre-disposed to clear their minds of obstacles. It's here that Writing Down the Bones helps; while that book over-emphasizes the "write crap until you drop, because at least you're writing," it does suggest that one clear the mind of judgment, above all things, before embarking on one's poetry experiments. While judgment is an inevitable human pre/occupation, I'd like to banish it from the undergraduate classroom as much as possible. So much enters the first day, unguided yet terrifying, a gift from missionaries, not angels. To clear that surface of dust-bunnies gives the reader (and her professor) the space to play with interior design. The Marvell couch and the Moore love seat; the Stevens lava lamp and the Harryette Mullen upholstry: these can only find their places if the room itself beckons.

There is another possibility, of course. That is teaching poetry as horror. Scared of poetry? This course confirms your suspicion that poetry is very very scary. Freddy Krueger ain't got nothing on W.H. Auden!!

--Consider that the poem bares its fangs at you.
--Consider that the poem is a vampire that sucks your blood.
--Consider that the best poems never shoot blanks, are always better armed than you.
--Consider that "getting" the poem makes it MORE dangerous.
--Consider that the poem has designs on you. All poems are Dick Cheney's.
--Consider your deep paranoia to be the greatest poem. Indulge it.

Dickinson's idea that the poem is what "takes the top of your head off" is then, per Paglia, potentially a literal statement.

In the age of violent video games, or even of Captain Underpants's "The Incredibly Graphc Violence Chapter (in flip-o-rama)," who can go wrong with such a lesson plan, at least those late nights when the next morning's poetry lesson most scares the professor herself?


Joe Harrington said...

Do you mean Lao Tzu or Sun Tzu? I'd rather have Lao Tzu, personally. The pared-down version of Moore's "Poetry" makes a good epigram, going into a poetry course: everybody takes it too goddam seriously! People assume the poet knows more than they do - or that s/he has a message that has to be delivered in CODE. It's healthy to find interviews where poets say they don't have a clue what that poem they wrote means (tho they may have a sense of what it's about, in general terms). I mean, don't worry about what you don't understand, notice what you notice. And how it makes you feel.

Susan M. Schultz said...

Guess I meant Sun! Amen to the rest.