Haunted and weird poetry: a lesson plan

My visiting writer gig at Randolph College started yesterday. As the Pearl S. Buck Writer in Residence (virtually), I’m teaching a 4-session workshop each Thursday night in February, 7-9pm. There are only 4 members, all advanced poetry students, so it’s a pretty nice gig. The topic is “Haunted and Weird,” since the organizer told me these students were also jazzed about speculative fiction–but also because strangeness and surprise make for complicated, interesting, powerful poems.

Designing the syllabus, I gave each session a title/ theme. Yesterday’s was “Pleased to Meet You” and it worked like a charm. In case the topic appeals, here’s how it played out. I asked each poet to post a poem the Tuesday before our session, following this prompt (it’s keyed to a care package sent in advance):

If you dare, light the votive candle in your care package, without burning your house down, please. Prepare to tell a story of an encounter with something potentially supernatural in five sentences. It should be based on an incident you have experienced, OR you can ask a friend or a family member for a story and use your imagination to fill in the details. Instructions for each sentence:

  1. Write a sentence beginning, “The weirdest part was.” (You may revise that phrase out later, but start with the eeriest moment of your tale.)
  2. Describe what the setting or the apparition smelled like.
  3. Ask any question that you don’t know the answer to. It can be unrelated to the scene.
  4. Describe, with at least one sensory detail (involving sight, sound, smell, taste, or touch), how your body felt when the apparition left or you left it.
  5. Describe, with at least one sensory detail, how the apparition felt after the encounter.

Here are some poems they had to read for class, as well as each other’s drafts. I also asked them to be ready to explain which poem unsettled them most and why.

I started us off with “Monsters,” which triggers all my parent-fear. One student named Mariani’s “Ghost” as the most unsettling–that’s another poem full of guilt, and very crafty in how it sets up situations and then dissolves them. For everyone else it was “The Mango,” in which the speaker hears voices–and yet it’s more political than supernatural. One way all of these poems are shifty: what’s “real” is up for grabs, although there’s plenty of realistic detail within them.

I ran out of time to run a three-staged prompt I’d invented. At the end of class, they had to open a sealed envelope, also in the care package. I had put an antique postcard in each, having ordered a batch from Etsy (some of them are dated as early as 1906). Here’s one I didn’t send; I’m planning to use the extras in a fall workshop on the same theme.

The prompt to go with their postcard:

  • First study the picture side and write for 3 minutes about what messages the picture conveys all by itself
  • Then read the message—think about ink, the handwriting, writing style; also look at the postmark, stamp, and address; write for 3 minutes about what you see
  • Now imagine the sender is a ghost and write back to them.

They can build on that idea for next week’s poem, or research the meanings of the tarot card I also put in each envelope (I figured some students might not like to mess with them, so that’s just an option). Next week’s assignment:

  • Choosing a night when you’ll have 20 minutes to write the next morning, sleep with something unusual beneath your pillow (one of the cards from the care package, or anything else that feels like it has some mystery about it). Have pen and paper by your bed—real writing tools, not your phone. As soon as you wake up, write for a while about anything that’s on your mind. Put the paper away, forget about it, and later on come back and write a poem about possible relationships between the object and your free-write.
  • Write an epistolary poem (a letter poem) to someone or something that can’t answer.
  • Write any other poem based on a religious ritual or uncanny procedure. If tarot interests you, study the card I gave you and research its meanings, or you can do a free online reading here.

The energy in the class felt good, I think? Only teaching two hours a week, P/F so nobody’s worked up about grades–pretty sweet. In September I’ll be back to a full teaching load, a million advisees and meetings and committees, but now I get to just swoop in and be the Spirit of Poetry Fun, here to distract you.

How poetry approaches music (and dances away again)

magnoliaThat’s the little magnolia in our side yard, intensely pink but browned from last night’s ice. A very intense winter term is just ending, one that included lots of grief and good news for the people around me, and that struggling tree, planted by the previous owners, seems a reasonably good emblem for it all. A little scraggly, but in persistence, beautiful.

I’ve been meaning for a while to post some reflections about my winter term courses. One of them, a general-education level seminar, focused on poetry and music. We started with prosody and moved through a series of mini-lessons on poetry riffing on various musical genres: spirituals, blues, jazz, punk, hip hop. Anna Lena Phillips Bell visited and talked about old-time music in relation to her book Ornament. A student composer stopped in, and two other visitors analyzed song lyrics poetically, focusing on Kendrick Lamar and Bob Dylan. It was all tremendously fun, not least because my students were smart and game. I’m not sure I feel much closer to answering my big question: what possible relations exist between poetry and song? But I did write up the thoughts below for my students and they seem worth sharing.

First: while there are pieces about which I’d say with perfect confidence, “That strongly fits my definition of poetry,” or “that’s absolutely a song,” there’s a gray area where the genres lean strongly towards each other–a cappella singing, rap, poems recited rhythmically or over music. If music means “sound organized in time,” performed poetry fits the bill, whether or not the words are set to melody or there’s instrumental accompaniment. Rhythm is latent in words; voices have pitch, timbre, dynamics.

Conversely, song lyrics can be printed out and analyzed poetically, and singer-composers in various eras have had a very strong influence on what page-poets try to accomplish. I’m still bothered when people conflate the genres or put them in competition with each other, because the differences in media feel profound to me, yet lyric poetry and songs with lyrics share a strong sisterhood.

But given my own devotion to patterned words on a page, a medium I find powerful in its own right, I wanted to systematize the ways a printed poem can engage music. My provisional answers:

  1. Through allusion: by referencing a song or a type of music, the poet can sketch a time & place or hint at a speaker’s frame of reference, as epigraphs in Ornament help connect the poems to Appalachia. If the reader knows the song, the allusion can even function as sensory detail does—the poet transfers an ear-worm so that scraps of music play in the reader’s memory while reading. This helps conjure a literary world the way reference to a taste, scent, or texture can.
  2. Through rhythm and sound effects: readers can perceive meter, alliteration, rhyme, and other “sound” effects without actually voicing a poem. These patterns or discords shape tone and can help imprint lines in memory; they engage us in making predictions about when the refrain will come or what the rhyme will be. Sometimes intensely patterned poems are contagious: you want to voice them, as if humming along.
  3. Through imitation/ adaptation: sometimes a poet is trying to achieve what a song or a musical form achieves—to stir or move readers—so that a poem includes, in some metaphorical sense, its own music. Certain Langston Hughes poems ARE blues or jazz, at least as far as print can simulate them. Rhythmical effects and rhyme, as in #2, contribute to the “music.” Typographic and other visual effects may come into play.
  4. Through response or criticism: a poem can, in a more expository way, explain what a song or musical element means, giving us a new and better-informed way to hear it. I’d put Yusef Komunyakaa’s “February in Sydney” in this category.

Scraggly list, or beautiful, or both? I’d be happy to hear about angles I’ve underplayed or overlooked. I really liked this topic for a course and plan to come back to it.

Germinant

My daughter spent the weekend in Budapest, an eight-hour bus ride from Prague, where she’s studying abroad. My son spent the weekend at the state chess tournament, at which he played well and scored a couple of upset wins against higher-ranked competitors. I spent the weekend honing a PowerPoint concerning faculty survey results for the program directors’ plenary at the AWP, which is not my cup of tea, although many cups of tea were consumed in the process. My workload has definitely been tilted too far towards service lately. On the bright side, even as I struggle to meet all those commitments, poems are spraying out of me wildly like water from a damaged spigot. It’s a spring thing–the light comes back and so does the poetry.

I enjoyed editing the “Process” column for Modernism/ modernity, but I’m grateful to be handing that patch of earth to another gardener now. For my last post, I interviewed one of the contemporary poetry scholars I most admire, Jahan Ramazani. “Isn’t that one of the glories of rich, complex, multidimensional poems,” he writes, speaking my language, “that they keep emitting light long after much else in their time has gone dark?” I hereby raise my teacup to scholars and critics everywhere doing good work in service of rich, complex, multidimensional poems. May it keep mulching new poems and reinvigorated conversations.

The other publications poking out of wintry soil this week were two poems in the new issue of Barrow StreetThe shorter one, “Recumbent Lee,” is pictured above, photographed in Payne Hall at W&L. Lee Chapel rises in the background, a building that’s basically a shrine to Lee; Valentine’s statue is housed centrally within it, and the general himself is buried in the crypt. My poem was written and accepted well before the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville last summer, but in a way, it’s overdue. I have a lot of problems with Valentine’s well-rendered work of art. The graceful way it whites out cruelty–that’s not what I wish to teach and honor.

A waxing gibbous moon rising over the rear of Payne Hall, however, after a wonderful lecture by Robert Macfarlane about language and the more-than-human world–that’s a brightness I’d amplify. It’s funny how I can feel so stressed about everything happening outside my classrooms but pretty good about what’s happening within them. But as I prep pantoums, ghazals, blues, and documentary poetry for tomorrow, I do feel nourished by the work of helping their writing and thinking grow. It’s decent ground to stand on when the wind is high.

Imaginary journals with real poems in them

journals-all

If you’re not enjoying what you’re grading, maybe the problem lies in the assignment. I think I’m right in attributing this provocation to Paul Hanstedt, either during a faculty development talk he gave here or on a long-ago Facebook post, but at any rate, it was electrifying, and resulted in real changes in my course design. I still teach writing genres that any English professor would recognize: close-reading, motif-tracing, proposal, annotated bibliography, research essay, response paper, etc. Those genres are part of what my students need to learn and practice to succeed in their coursework, and, in some cases, their graduate school applications.

But underlying those genres are much more important skills people need for the rest of their lives: how to analyze nuances of language in a poem, a piece of legislation, or a comedian’s unconvincing apology; how to make evidence-based arguments in Philosophy papers, op-eds, or grant proposals; how to explore unfamiliar intellectual terrain through research, then cite reliable sources when mapping it. Another set of goals that may be more idiosyncratic to poet-scholars like me: I want my students to think hard about what they like in literature, versus accepting what they’re told is admirable. I certainly have my own tastes to advocate for in the classroom and elsewhere, but in an ongoing way, we all ought to accept challenges to our literary prejudices and keep trying to articulate what’s great about books we love. This is what passionate readers do, and I want my former students to remain passionate readers, no matter their day jobs.

So with all this in mind, I set up three writing assignments for my seminar this term on British and Irish Poetry since 1900 (not including response papers and a scansion or two). The October essay, on modernism, was of a conventional variety, requiring close-reading of poetry in service of a literary argument. The December essay, on twenty-first-century poetry, will be a review of a single contemporary collection–another important academic genre, but requiring evaluative as well as analytic moves.

The November assignment was the weird one, cooked up in part by W&L Associate University Librarian Jeff Barry, who has been working on a variety of Special Collections materials related to Shenandoah at mid-century, including correspondence with Ezra Pound from one of the magazine’s earliest editors, Tom Carter. In between seminar meetings on Auden, Larkin, Thomas, Smith, Heaney, Bennett, and other wonderful poets, we brought the students in to examine an array of rare old mid-century magazines. They also read old issues of Shenandoah, not yet digitized but in the stacks.

Then they had to cook up a mid-century literary journal of their own–perhaps with a transatlantic reach, but based in England, Ireland, Scotland, or Wales. They produced eight folio pages of their imaginary magazine, including title, mission, masthead, table of contents, and the first few pages of poetry. Finally, a reflective essay about the process was required, including bibliographical information on at least three journals they had studied for inspiration. Most of them read other materials, too, to learn about corners of the literary scene and locate poets from beyond the syllabus.

I’m convinced, as I read the products, that my students did illuminating research and learned a few things about periodicals, mid-century British history and culture, and even about fonts. They collected work from writers whom they and I had never read before. They also remedied my syllabus, finding materials of pressing interest to each of them that I had not included: more women writers, more poets of the African diaspora, more verse about war and cities and animals and the Welsh landscape.

I have to say, they’re really fun to grade.

Onto reading applications for the Shenandoah editorship, thinking about a real magazine’s possible new directions, which, though time-consuming, is fun, too. I also hope to post in coming weeks about some digital storytelling students are doing in my other class. Meanwhile, here‘s a guest blog from me that StoryCenter just posted, about how and why I took a workshop in digital storytelling last summer. I’ve got a hankering to try making another videopoem, but first: cranberry sauce.

Oceanicartography

No, that’s not a real word. But last week, certain currents in my thinking converged, all having to do with maps and oceans. On Saturday, we dropped our daughter off at the Charlottesville train station then headed over to Chroma Projects to see a show by an old friend and collaborator, Carolyn Capps, called “Deep Sea Calculations”:

These pieces owe a lot to old-fashioned illustrated maps, but in a way they chart the mind, too–they’re process drawings, in which one image inspires the next in visual/verbal association. I was at the same time preparing to teach Ocean Vuong’s 2016 debut collection, Night Sky With Exit Wounds, a collection I find attractive but sometimes opaque. The book, reflecting on Vuong’s immigration from Vietnam to the U.S. and a family history of domestic assault, is full of thresholds crossed in violence. In sex, too. He registers a New York School influence through all those curly ampersands and via talky, sexy meditations like “Notebook Fragments,” but Vuong also deploys persona poems, footnoted blank spaces, punctuation experiments, perhaps the shortest “About the Author” page ever–in short, a host of strategies that occlude the poet’s presence.

During our first class session, we focused on the almost-title-track, “Self-Portrait as Exit Wounds,” a poem I found intensely mysterious until I happened upon his published note about it (press “more” at the poets.org link). It helps to know that this poem’s perspective follows the trajectory of a bullet, even though the missile’s path transgresses the law of physics, crossing decades as well as geography. It’s a beautiful and disturbing piece, but my class couldn’t make much sense of the ending. How can the “I” lower himself “between the sights” of the gun? Vuong is identifying with both shooter and target for reasons the rest of the book makes clear, yet none of us could see the final image of the “self-portrait.” I confess I was hoping the hunters in the room could explain something about rifles I was missing, but they shook their heads. Usually when I bring a problem to a roomful of smart English majors, we figure it out together, but none of our readings were satisfying to me–except the general one suggested by the phrase “exit wounds,” that this book is a chronicle of absence and damage.

Sometimes you reread a book of poems and it all comes clear; other times it turns to mist in your hands. So for the second session, I deployed a teaching strategy chronicled here: asking students to produce a one-page visual representation of the volume. What else, I wondered, were my students seeing and not seeing, as they charted paths through all the lovely words?

One student, Bailey Brilley, reinvented the cover. The images brilleyhe photoshopped together include an aerial photo of a Vietnam bomb field, a propaganda poster by a Cuban artist, a Pulitzer-prize winning photo of a Vietnamese man’s execution (the arm and gun), and WWII-era beach towel ads depicting troops in the South Pacific.

Dana Gary made a Magritte-influenced wordless broadside for a single surreal pov danaoem, “Queen Under the Hill.” Thomas Ferguson tracked references to hands and aligned them to illuminate their associations with intimacy and violence.

ov thomas

Charlotte Doran found images and articles about the war and the fall of Saigon, streaming “White Christmas” across them as Vuong does, verbally, in “Aubade with Burning City.” Rosy-fingered dawn, and all. These visual and emotional engagements with the poems seem an especially apt way to handle poems that resist rational schema.
ov charlotte

And tomorrow, we all talk to Ann Fisher-Wirth and Laura-Gray Street before their public reading–mappers of the ecopoetry’s territory, plus Ann is the author of one of my favorite long poems, Carta Marina, inspired by a phantasmagoric old woodcut-printed map that puts me in mind of Carolyn’s drawings again. And so we sail to the edge of winter term, to tell stories about where we’ve been.

Teaching Claudia Rankine’s Citizen

Teaching a single-author poetry book is a different enterprise than assigning poems from an anthology. There’s a lot more information to sift and process: the future greatest hits are interspersed with poems that may be harder to absorb; ordering, epigraphs, and subsections suggest new meanings; there’s an arc to read for, a set of through-lines to discover. Those carefully composed slim collections, though, are my favorite way to encounter a poet. Maybe it’s all that intensive concept-album-listening I did as a teenager. I love to consider lyric fragments as part of a larger design.

In most of my undergraduate poetry courses, I assign at least a couple of these volumes, often recent ones I want to study more closely. I typically place them in the second half of the semester, after close-reading skills are sharp enough to stay in balance with the larger thematic readings students often prefer to do. One I taught recently was Evie Shockley’s 2011 the new black, a brilliant book to close a course on African-American poetry because it’s so historically-minded, so diverse in its strategies and affiliations, that it has a scholarly or critical quality.

The very last book we read together, though, was Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, and for our last session I used an assignment I describe in the essay “Mapping Sea Garden,” collected in Annette Debo’s and Lara Vetter’s book Approaches to Teaching H.D. In short, I ask students to track some element of the volume and find a way to represent its recurrence on a single page. Then, for part of a class, each student brings his or her “map” (often a graph, list, or chart) up to the document camera, projects it, and talks through what he or she learned in the process.

I share a few visually striking ones below with the students’ permission, but they employed a wide variety of conceptual and graphic approaches, as fits such a complicated and visually-oriented book. The first presenter tracked animal references, which turn out to be quite prominent–he divided them into “predators” and “ruminants.” Others made lists of sensory references (there’s a full range, less tilted to vision than you might expect); emotions (they cool over the course of the book); or types of human interactions (strangers outnumber friends or colleagues). They were attracted to motifs such as rain, blossoms, and mouths. All of those strategies highlight important aspects of the book: its vividness, sense of danger, preoccupations with speech and wayward feeling.

citizen word cloud Cynthia Lam wrote down every woman’s name, counted its recurrences, and created this word cloud. “Serena” dominates, even when you count the possessive and the full name, “Serena Williams,” separately.

citizen stencil

The next, by Anna Kathryn Barnes, with its stencils and handwritten notes, seems to me to document a very personal process of reading–that experience of words and images lodging in your mind, haunting you, for reasons that may be idiosyncratic.

citizen skullsThe same is true of the third piece pictured here, with its temporary tattoos of flowers and candy skulls. Its creator was thinking of masks, pronouns, and personas, but the swirling quotes also convey an emotionally charged encounter with Rankine’s challenging book.

Citizen body

A final favorite is more intensely blue in the original than my photograph–the reader wrote down all Rankine’s uses of the word “body” and discovered how often the word “blue” appeared in conjunction with it.

Onto their last assignment now, self-chosen: each student has to write a review of a book published by an African-American poet in the last 15 years, and the poet has to be someone whose work we haven’t studied together.  I’m excited to hear their presentations today.

As far as my own work for National Poetry Month: oy. I did manage to get a poetry submission in, and I wrote an unusual number of words for a weekday during the teaching term, but my writing impulses were totally perverse. I worked on a hybrid critical-personal essay I’ve been cooking up concerning Claudia Emerson’s Pharaoh, Pharaoh. I started drafting this blog. I also wrote the first scene of what might be a NOVEL. Here’s hoping I’ll at least experience that phenomenon of accidental productivity through misbehavior…

Sylvia Plath Quiz

My students’ responses to the real Plath quiz I just administered were too red, they hurt me, so I hereby offer an optional retest.* If your brain has not emptied of images like a cup or a room, please answer the following legibly without using the words hook, bald, black, moon, or blood.

1. What brand of cleanser works best to clear the white tumuli of a father-figure’s eyes?

2. Why did “Morning Song” make you all vow never to bear or sire children, while it strikes me as the most cheerful poem one could possibly write about the identity-negating sleep deprivation resulting from tending a newborn?

3. What marine creature does Plath see in the mirror, and what does that teach you about avoiding reflective surfaces?

4. In “Wintering,” what does Plath keep in the cellar, and please don’t all write “dead bodies” again, because that was seriously creepy?

5. Stop crying. Come here, sweetie, out of the closet. Will you major in it, major in it, major in it?

6. On a scale of 1 to 13, with 1 meaning “totally justified critique of patriarchy” and 13 meaning “wildly offensive trivialization of the Holocaust,” how ich-ich-ich-icky is “Daddy”?

7. Pure? What does it mean?

8. Why is bleeding because you “fall upon the thorns of life” so superior, Scott, to oozing gore from a trepanned veteran, dirty girl, thumb stump?

9. How can there be “nothing there” after Lady Lazarus’ “big strip tease,” except a phoenix? Alternatively, explain in three lines or less how these poems can be A) so messed up and B) simultaneously so powerful and indelible.

Extra credit if you can fold these poems back into your body OR tell me why the moon has nothing to be sad about.

*Passing this retest will not affect your actual grade in any fashion.

High school, the best poetry audience ever

One way to tell the story of how I came to read poetry desperately and constantly would be: early. I still know by heart a book of nursery rhymes I used to own, with Richard Scarry illustrations. A lot of us, though, had our first serious poetry crushes in, or at least during, high school. At fifteen, while I was struck dumb by Keats in the classroom, I was also buying David Bowie albums, reading the liner notes, and hunting down the books he mentioned there. Hence William Burroughs—who was NOT on the curriculum at the Academy of the Holy Angels—and Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, which was a life-changer. Then Sister Ignatius commanded that I enter a poetry contest at Bergen County Community College, so I copied over my verses and, to my shock because I never won anything, took first prize. The professor-judge told me I’d clearly read a lot of Gerard Manley Hopkins, whom I’d never heard of (maybe he’s the love-child of Keats and Ginsberg?), so I went home and read him, too. University was where this all gathered speed—taking modernism courses, meeting intense young writers who were also cute boys—but I’m not sure I ever needed poems as urgently I did in high school. Those were such isolated, unhappy years. Give me bad office politics, babies who wake at 5 a.m., even tax forms. It’s all better than being fifteen.

So I am all the more impressed by Beth Konkoski at Broad Run High School in Ashburn, Virginia. She’s the kind of teacher I needed but most of us never get. Yesterday, at her invitation, I drove nearly three hours, ran a workshop for 30 students, read to about 300 in a large auditorium, had lunch with members of her department, and drove three hours home again. She doesn’t run an event of this magnitude every year, but Beth is a poet who meets other writers, like me, at conferences, so she knows her way around po-biz. She is also dedicated and organized: Beth asked some weeks in advance for a few poems I planned to read, especially poems revising myths and fairy tales, and gave them to her students in advance with journal prompts. She is also experienced enough in managing teenagers to make it look like a magical power: who ever heard of 300 highschoolers sitting quietly and with the appearance of respectful attention for a 40 minute poetry reading by some middle-aged person? It also seems to me, from a quick visit, that her large, diverse public school must be unusually supportive of inspired teachers, because the logistics alone were staggering. So many permission slips…

My workshop involved litanies and list-poems, a similar scheme to the one I wrote up for The Exercise Book (which I revisited for ideas earlier this week and man, that really is a good collection). I wanted to frame the reading itself with poems by other writers, so I elicited a bunch of suggestions on Facebook. I then didn’t follow any of them except for Margo Solod’s general directive: “hit ‘em hard.” Which meant, I deduced, not corporal punishment but choosing the most powerful poems I could. I began with a terrific Tim Seibles piece and closed with Mary Oliver, because one of my first Washington and Lee students, Jeanne, said “Wild Geese” had empowered her to depart from the script and be who she needed to be. Of my own, I chose a poem about being a zombie, another about campus sexual assault, some about my mother’s childhood in Liverpool, and elegies. The dead pet poems triggered noisy tears from a young woman in the back start—I hope you’ll forgive me, Cellist Girl. A newish poem, “Vasovagal Syncope,” made another young woman run up afterwards: “I have that! I never thought I’d hear a poem about it!”

The questions amazed me most. You know how during the question period after a reading, all the college students will freeze and all the community members shift around uncomfortably? I had thought of pulling a Craig Santos Perez—he tosses cans of Spam to the first audience members who speak up—but I don’t have the throwing arm to reach the back rows, so I just braced myself for nervous silence. Instead, I couldn’t keep up with their raised hands. Okay, there was the sloucher in the first row performing disaffected sarcasm, but almost all of them were writer questions. What do you think about rhyme in contemporary poetry? How do you know when a poem’s done? What’s the most important idea you try to get across to your poetry students? What do you do when you’re staring at a blank page and nothing’s happening? How do you manage self-doubt? The one-on-one conversation afterward was just as urgent. One guy who called himself a “music nerd” asked, “So are there poet’s poets, the way there are obscure, unknown musicians that all the other musicians admire for their skills?” And there was the fiction writer who asked about writing a story in which people are telling a story. “Well, that’s called frame narration,” I began, and he said, “Yeah, but how do you DO it? Is it like, dot dot dot? Is there a way to start in third-person omniscient and then move to first-person?” Man, that kid is in the trenches.

Are there any questions more high-stakes than those, more serious? I liked those students so much for sticking their hands right up in that potentially intimidating space and asking what they needed to know. And I like their teachers so much for making room for this conversation in an era of frantic standardized testing and STEM-field obsession. The music nerds and future scientists need poems, too, and Beth is making sure they have access to them. It’s beautiful.

Skidding on the banana peel of literary judgment

Goodreads is driving me banana. (After misspeaking recently, I decided “going banana” sounds significantly crazier than the plural.) I resolved to keep better track of what I read, both out of curiosity and because my memory is really not sharp enough for those year-in-review pieces I get asked to write. (Alternately, somebody suggested LibraryThing, but I’d had a brief flirtation with Goodreads before, so I decided to have one more go at a familiar system.) But in logging books, you rate them, and I have a feeling I’m doing this ALL WRONG. That is, I’m saving five stars for the books that move or dazzle me memorably, the books I’ll keep coming back to. That criterion is idiosyncratic: the Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson would be a no-brainer for many, but When the Water Came by Cynthia Hogue and Rebecca Ross is also up in that stratosphere for me, both because those interview-poems are so affecting and because reading them launched a new interest in documentary poetics. The latter changed the direction of my thinking; I understand it might not change yours. In the meantime, I’m giving Mary Szybist’s National Book Award-winning Incarnadine four stars, because it’s merely a really, really good collection. Some of the poems are amazing, but like all collections of disparate works, the book’s a little uneven (so is Dickinson, to be fair). I see why those smart judges admired Incarnadine, that is, but it did not shake my world. The banana segment of this personally reasonable reaction is that nobody knows my weird criteria, so in rating books this way I’m liable to offend a lot of author-acquaintances. Besides, poetry needs all the boosterism it can get, right? Even if you say, no, it needs critical judgment in this age of grade inflation, what good does one tiny star-clicker do in the scheme of things, anyway, with her fine discriminations?

I find myself considering questions of evaluation in the classroom, too, and not just in grading undergraduate essays (once I could have written an angsty post about grading, but after a few thousand tries I find myself pretty relaxed about it). “What’s good about this?” is a typical question in creative writing workshops, but in literature classes we more often ask “how does this work?” or “what kind of poem is this?” or “how does this fit in a chain of influence/ reaction?” Certain kinds of literature classes do invite literary judgment, especially courses that stretch or challenge the canon in some way. And we make those private pronouncements all the time: this famous author is amazing; that one does not float my banana boat. Still, when a grumpy student complains about some text on the syllabus, I’m likely to reply that we’ll have a better conversation if we start with the assumption it’s worth reading. “What’s interesting about this?” is usually a more productive prompt than “Is this any good?” It’s rooted in a better stance towards the universe. Snarkiness has its own dark delights, but aren’t curious, open-minded, open-hearted people just more fun? Don’t you know someone whose eternal enthusiasm, whose assumption that everything and everyone is fascinating, make him or her a delight to spend time with?

Yet I found myself having a little temper-tantrum last Friday. I’m teaching Twenty-First Century Poetry, focusing the readings on lost, damaged, or imaginary places. For the first few weeks, I’m revisiting a unit I did once before on poetry after Hurricane Katrina (I blogged a bit about it two years ago). We began with When the Water Came, some clips from Spike Lee’s amazing documentary When the Levees Broke, and readings about documentary poetics. Then, before moving onto some related poems I admire by Nicole Cooley and Patricia Smith, I taught the controversy about Raymond McDaniel’s prize-winning book Saltwater Empire. An essay by Abe Louise Young and a rather indirect retort by McDaniel give more information, but in brief, McDaniel built a series of collage poems out of survivor testimonies from the Alive in Truth web site (which has been taken down since). He did not seek permission to quote the materials, as the site directed him to do, but he did put a tiny little acknowledgement on the copyright page (not in the Notes section, weirdly). My class read just part of the series, collectively titled “Convention Centers of the New World,” and compared it to another poem from the same book, “This Is a Recording,” which does sample a Bo Diddley song but seems to represent something more like a personal experience of listening to music in some lonely southern darkness.

We had lively conversations about ethics versus aesthetics: of course writers are always transforming other sources, but is there a bright line somewhere designating kinds of appropriation that are just wrong? The college I teach at has a strong honor system, so not surprisingly, some students argued that McDaniel’s poems simply constitute plagiarism. Others found them beautiful and powerful, and suggested the quality of the art could mitigate his failure to seek the appropriate permission.

Truly, strong differences of opinion are great in a classroom, and I’m glad to have made space for them. And I see why people find McDaniel’s poems beautiful and powerful. Yet even if it were possible to put aside the ethical problems, McDaniel’s poststructuralist justifications drive me banana. Yes, yes, we and our voices are fragmented and multiple, but this is an academic piety I’ve grown up with and I’m bored of it. Poetry is an art of implication, of mysterious and not-quite-tameable resonance, and yet I’m no fan of the fashionable jumpy, extremely anti-narrative mode (well, except for the very very best stuff). It strikes me as lazy.  I want to shout: “Do the work! Make the connections, or at least give me enough hints that I can do it! Know what your own damn poem is ABOUT!” And, um, I kind of did in class, although I wasn’t very shouty.

So there I was, potentially closing down interesting dissent with my own strong internal rating system, and only two weeks into the term, no less. It seemed unwise to me, but I feel so fiercely about the whole business–I take poetry personally, and I think others should, too. The lone banana, split. It’s a fabulous group of students, though, so I suspect they’ll bounce back with their own fierce age-of-Google opinions and puree me.