Sunday, March 15, 2009

Ian MacMillan & some notes on teaching

Paul Theroux on Ian MacMillan:

"Ian was talking to me in Haleiwa about Camus' short stories when an insect landed on his hand. Most of us would squash the bug. Ian raised his hand so that he could better see the insect and, while talking about Camus, he took the insect in, looking at it from every angle, appreciating it like a fine jewel. When he had finished, and while still talking about Camus, he gently moved his hand and let the bug go. He gave it life. From then on, I have refrained from squashing bugs when they land on me."

Such was Ian's power, to offer a Buddhist lesson to Paul Theroux (of all people!) and so to us. R.I.P. Ian.

The major issue that came up in my teaching of CW & Lit this past week was how to explain to students who have absorbed the idea that poetry is the art of leaving things out, of suggesting stories rather than telling them, that there is still a mandate for precision, for exactitude. Not an easy task. The last set of poems I received from these students was full of wonderful gestures at imagery and story, but many of them seemed willfully obscure. The obscurity began on the level of grammar. Every sentence we utter contains a story; someone does something, someone else does something back. But students were refusing the net of noun and verb in favor of lines like (and I made this up): "Swirling in the snow / it glints / the silver light is bright," where the reader is not privy to what is swirling or what is glinting (and yet assumes somehow that these are different "whats").

We rewrote these lines so that there were agents and objects. "I swirled in the snow / my rolex glinting/ in the silver light." My second class was still unhappy, because as one student put it, he just liked vagueness and ambiguity. Which led me to explain (to myself as well as to them) that ambiguity in poetry comes not of vagueness but of precision. We looked at Diane Glancy's poem about a woman's visit to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa. In this poem she writes very straightforward phrases beginning with the pronoun "she." But what we realized as we read the poem, is that the "she" is ambiguous, belonging both to the speaker of the poem and to the subject of the painting. Glancy, a solitary woman, is gazing at a painting of a solitary woman (and paintings by Vermeer and others of women working). She is looking at herself, a woman in a gilded frame, and also imagining how to step out from such (western, gendered) artfulness.

Tomorrow I think I'll take them something by Emily Dickinson or Hart Crane--perhaps inspired by Michael Snedicker's wonderful essays in Queer Optimism on their "smiles"--to show that even when the subject (smile) is divorced from its usual cause (the immediate happiness of one particular smiler), the poet's grammar gives us reason to meditate on the smile as the subject of a more metaphysical (meta-smilical) phenomenon. I'm not doing them, or Michael, justice here, but this is the direction I want to go, having last time made a counter-argument about needing the subject attached to its object (smile to face) in a way that was too simple, but perhaps appropriate to the conversation we were having. If an image that does not have agency of its own (the smile) suddenly discovers it in a poem, then the poet must offer just cause for this to happen. If I ask for directions to Ala Moana and you send me to Waianae, you have not succeeded. If you send me to Ala Moana and I realize that it is like other shopping malls in other places, then you have succeeded. Ah, the consumer epic!

When, in our latest department meeting about budget cuts, we talked about "reorganizing" the introduction to literature program, which features small classes of underclassman, I realized I have come to love these courses for the very conversations we had during this past week. (This was not the case a decade ago, when the classes seemed to me merely frustrating.) The subject of precision and multiplicity also came up--differently--in a memo from our Chancellor in which she alluded to a bad incident that happened on campus, said she did not approve of it, and never mentioned what it was (namely, a group of rightwing Christians yelling at students that they would go to hell if they so much as failed to disapprove of homosexuality).

We need the name of the thing in order for that thing to mean--and to mean more than it seems to mean.

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