Tuesday, March 30, 2010

On Teaching the Difficulties

We had the "accessibility" talk in my graduate workshop yesterday. Every semester I've taught poetry has featured some version of this conversation. In some classes, the question arises in monetary terms. One undergraduate class told me that they were going to make money off their poems; when I laughed, they told me I wasn't taking them seriously enough. "Do you want to hear about my small press's finances?" I asked, and then told them about the alternative economy I participate in as a poetry publisher. In other classes, the question arises out of the energy it takes to read poetry. One of my first students at UH wondered who on earth would work a long day at the bank and then go home and choose to read something difficult. (That circles back on money, too, I see.) Yesterday, the question was engaged on many levels, as befits a class of ambitious graduate students. We have been reading Susan Howe's Singularities these past two weeks. It's a book I've been obsessed with for 15 years now, the only one of her books I teach with any consistency, and so I've perhaps forgotten what a shock it is to read it for the first time. During the week several words popped up on our google group discussion board, among them "discomfort," "audience," "understanding," and "accessibility."

I love these words because we all think we know what they mean. So I began class by asking students to talk about what we mean when we say them. What is an accessible poem? What is an inaccessible one? Who reads these poems? The discussion quickly turned into a loop: accessible poems make us comfortable; inaccessible ones lack an audience (except academics, of course!); a lack of understanding makes us uncomfortable. And so on. One student wanted to know how to enter into the process of reading a Howe poem; it turned out she knew full well, but could not find the end of the scout's path. To be fair, no one was arguing for the easy, lounge chair poem, but everyone was weighing the quotient of "getting it" and "getting stuck," failing to communicate (another of those words).

To understand a poem is to have some control over it. To have control over a poem means you can write about it effectively, that you can quote it to good effect, that you can carry it around with you as an answer, or at least a well-formulated question. To fail to understand a poem is to be irritated. In workshop sometimes our irritation flares up because a student's poem simply cannot be adequately interpreted as written. The poem that doesn't work is out of our control. But so are many poems that do work. These are the poems we want desperately to "understand" (standing under, having a foundation, holding the poem up like Atlas an entire world).

Graduate students are, by definition, good readers. Lack of understanding understandably irritates them; it's a paper cut to their sense of themselves. So, on the one hand, I suggest relaxing a bit. Listen to the poem, let it sit for while, don't worry on it so much. On the other hand, trust the poem to mean, if not quite to be understood. But this still leaves important questions like, "how can a poem with a small audience (or even smaller than usual) act in the world?" "How can a poem influence its audience if that audience is so small?" "Should we expect poems to act, or do they describe the world?" And so on. Good stuff.

But how to work toward the idea that "not understanding" can be a poem's subject, that "not understanding" or "not hearing" or witnessing an absence in the archive needs to be enacted rather than told? How to illustrate the "narrative in non-narrative" that Howe claims for her work? The exercise I developed came in two parts. First I asked students to find a six line section of the book; in ten minutes they were to rewrite those lines to render them "accessible." Perhaps the most vivid of these translations was by a student who took "velc cello uncannunc" and spun it out as "European strings," thus preserving the poem's larger context as she elaborated on the imposition of western culture on the "wilderness." A couple of students had not completed their translations because they'd better understood the passages in looking at them more closely.

After we'd discussed the translations, what was gained and (mostly) what was lost in doing them, we turned to the second part of the exercise. Here I handed out a copy of our latest administrative memo from the President of UH, M.R.C. Greenwood about further possible cuts in the university's budget. (One student had kindly printed it out 10 times for me, as my office printer no longer works.) I read a paragraph of the memo out loud and asked students to render a few sentences of it inaccessible. "Do you mean to say that it's already inaccessible?" chimed one student, getting way ahead of me.

A couple students translated Greenwood into Howe, making the memo's language into a chant. Another punned on green and wood and budge and jet (hurts my teeth simply to repeat that!) One replaced nearly every noun with "what." And so on. In the discussion afterwards, we talked about how alert we became to the memo's language, how we did not simply let it flow past us as if it did make sense.

That gets us to resistance, the resistance students feel toward poetry, especially of the difficult kind. This resistance is the teacher's ally, I think, because it evokes such crucial questions as those we discussed yesterday. And, if we take the budgetary memos and make them into difficult poems, that skepticism leads us into difficult questions about the university and the state. Who will spend this money? How can we best argue for the value of a university? What happens when, as one of my facebook friends put it, the bankrupt rhetoric of a university administration meets the rather more literal bankruptcy of the institution?

Poetry is not level ground, is steeplechase. But, like Stephen Collis, I hold to poems whose meanings live both within and without what one of my students, Jaimie Gusman, calls its "anyjar" or container. In a review of Hank Lazer's Portions in The Poetic Front, Collis distinguishes between the oulipian work of Christian Bok and the rather different formal limitations of Lazer as follows, "if I were to make the comparison, the difference between Bök and Lazer is that the former details the struggle to negotiate his constraint outside the poem, while Lazer shows us the struggle inside the poem, where it remains an (im)potentiality." It's the "(im)potentiality, or impish potentiality, that I so love, and love to teach, in "difficult" poems.


Patrick said...

Understanding is to stand under, or undertake not the poem but the self under the circumstances of the poem. The narrative of overcoming attributed to art works of any kind is, in my estimation, a function of institutional forms of "critique." I had a very ambitious creative writing student show me a piece before and after it had been workshopped the other day, and the latter version was drained of every gesture implied the very need for understanding. It was an explication. The more I try to see the benefit of the workshop model (not there there is only one, but...) the less I trust it. So I often point to the idea of "experiment" not as a manner or style, but as a method whereby the poem teaches one how to read it, rather than a set of poets teaching another how to write it. But this hasn't helped much.

susan said...

Yes, in fact one student said her reaction to Howe's work was to think, "I could never get away with THAT in a workshop." To which I responded that the problem lies more in the workshop than in Howe's work. The problem is that risks are not taken in workshop. Although having an open forum helps, where the point is not to correct but to question, to nudge, to suggest. Thanks for writing, Patrick.

Kathy said...

Susan, I had similar discussions re prose lately when teaching Rushdie to sophomores--we talked about letting go of the need to understand/master, and why a writer might deliberately want to leave the reader feeling de-centered. Considering these were undergraduates, almost all non-English majors, it was a challenge, but a fruitful one, I think.

mpak said...

Interesting stuff. I always wonder why we tend to have a sense of cognitive conquest, where, in math terms, we seek to eliminate "no solution" sets in search of a "complete" understanding of texts. And I think at this point is the only time when I actually enjoy Dadaist poetry. ZOOOOOM!!!