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This Makes Me Feel Like…

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In my Introduction to Literature course, we’ve moved through our short fiction, our long fiction, our drama, and are now into our poetry. I always put poetry at the end of the term, because my experience is that they typically need the experience of reading for the first 2/3 of the course before tackling poetry.

Why is that? Because I have found that freshpersons and sophomores are generally both pretty bad at and pretty uncomfortable with reading poetry. This makes sense. They should be. They live in a world where they don’t really encounter poetry on a day-to-day basis. It’s foreign.

I began this section of the course with some John Donne. I pulled up an electronic version of “Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” and projected it on the board. I asked them what they thought about the poem. I asked them whether they had difficulty reading it. They all did, and they were a little nervous about advancing any comments about it, so I suggested that we just move through the thing and make sure they understand what’s going on.

They had read a little primer on conventions in poetry (meter, rhyme, image, symbol, etc.), and so I said something along the lines of “Look. When you all write poetry, you cheat. You guys just write whatever you want. Nothing has to rhyme. Lines can be as long or as short as you like. THIS IS CHEATING. Poetry used to have rules.”

This caused several eyebrows to be raised. One student even said that she was bothered by the idea that poetry has rules.

I explained to them that poetry used to be a kind of puzzle or challenge. I explained that authors like Donne were attempting to express an idea while adhering to a set of arbitrary rules (meter, rhyme). I explained that this is sort of like them trying to go through the day without saying words with an “e” in them.

They said they had never heard of any of this before.

We worked through the poem, arguing about stressed and unstressed syllables, haggling over pronunciations, talking about the implications of a stress here or a rhyme there. We interpreted the imagery and then came to a sense of just what the poem is saying on its face.

They seemed to get it. And more importantly, it kept them focused on the text and what it says, rather than wandering off into random interpretations of images or lines without respect to what role those images or lines play in the poem.

It drives me nuts when they start spinning wild interpretations of imagery in a poem without a clear sense of what the thing is, you know, just saying on its face.

I walked into class on Wednesday prepared to teach Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.” This is the first poem we have read without a fixed form, and so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that they reverted to their old ways.

I asked them what they thought. The poem is pretty straightforward: the speaker, looking out across the English Channel, imagines that just as the tide is going out, so the “sea of faith” is retreating and leaving behind a world containing neither “joy, nor love, nor light, Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.” This is just what the thing says. We haven’t even gotten to interpreting the imagery or the little double-meanings or, you know, the big questions about religion or whether this is a kind of dirge or a poem of hope or anything like that.

Their response? They started picking individual images out and talking about what they made them think about.

I nearly lost my temper. I just stopped them. I hung my head. I said “Look. The reason you guys have so much trouble interpreting poetry is that you get a poem and you immediately start interpreting all kinds of images and symbols before you even understand what the thing is saying on its face.”

They all looked at me and said, “Yeah. You’re right.” And then we moved through the poem, line by line. And all was good.


Written by srogers

March 31, 2011 at 3:24 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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