Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Poetry Teaching Thoughts and Questions

I'll be teaching our intro poetry course this coming semester. Typically, I use an anthology; on occasion I've added a few other poems. And I use Hollander's Rhyme's Reason.

This year, I'm thinking of also teaching a book of more recently written poems, you know, by someone who's alive. It's shocking, isn't it.

I have a colleague who's a good poet, so I could teach one of his books. And I have a friend who's a good poet, but not, alas, a colleague, so I could teach her book.

If I teach one of the colleague's book, I could ask the colleague to come chat with my class. I can't ask the same of my friend, because it's just too far.

I'm a little hesitant about teaching a book of poetry. I've never done it before, so it would be new. And new is scary. Okay, I can handle that. But the temptation, especially if the book's by a poet you know, is that you read a poem and feel like you "know the answer," though, of course, there's no "answer" to be known in a poem. It's not like once you figure out that "The Flea" is doing an extended sexual metaphor you're done, and that's that for the poem. There's the metaphor, but it's not just a metaphor. In "The Flea," there's also the beauty of the structure, and the way the poem leaves the "beloved's" words out; there's a world of depth that isn't about being an inside dirty joke, though sexuality is certainly important in the poem.

When I started back to school, I took a lit theory course from X, and for that course, we read a book by Y, who, it turned out, X considered a friend. And I remember, we were reading a poem, and I offered up what I thought was a reasonably plausible reading of some line, and X said, no, it couldn't be that because Y wouldn't say that. Instead, X informed us, Y was writing about this other thing, and to know that you had to know Y (or, perhaps, have read Y's full works).

It struck me at the time as incredibly unfair. If it's in the poem, then anyone with appropriate language and cultural knowledge should be able to get something out of the poem. There might be other stuff there, stuff that only someone close to the poet would know, but the real there of the poem should be there for all readers. If it's just an inside joke, then it probably doesn't work really well as a poem.

When I teach poetry, I try to be really cognizant of teaching students the language and cultural backgrounds to understand how to read the poem, but mostly I focus on reading skills, on feeling and listening to the words, making out sentences, and figuring out how the poem works as a poem, rather than as an inside joke.

In other ways, too, I try not to be like X, whose definition of hermeneutics was all about what hermeneutics wasn't, so that I went around that semester complaining that while I knew what hermeneutics wasn't, my car was none of those things, either, and I didn't think that helped me understand hermeneutics. I still feel nervous when hermeneutics comes up as a term, by the way.

And then there's the other end of the thinking you know the poem because you know the poet. I don't know my colleague all that well. I mean, we chat about poetry, and I enjoy our interactions. And sometimes we chat about other things. But I don't know about his deepest love, or what his favorite food is, or why he chooses to write about what he does.

And my friend, though I know about her deepest love, I haven't seen for a number of years, so maybe what I think I know is totally wrong. Maybe her deepest love isn't what I think at all. And maybe the poem I read, that I think I know a context for, isn't at all about that.

Most of my students have some cultural differences from my friend, which would be good, because they'd learn about a culture they have little contact with. On the other hand, one of the advantages of teaching more contemporary poetry is that my students have a better sense of cultural contexts than they do reading Sidney or Wyatt, and teaching this book would mean I'd have to do a fair bit of cultural explaining, which would seem to edge a bit into the "I know this person, so I know this poem" problem. My colleague's world would seem way more familiar to my students, though I think his background provides some important cultural differences. I don't think those differences would require explanation in the same way because my students would feel like they "got" the cultural contexts.

My colleague and I have talked about teaching this poetry course, and I know he likes to teach a full book of modern poetry in there, because he thinks there's a rhythm and special meaning to reading a whole book. But he doesn't teach his own books of poetry there. And, because he's a poet, he reads a lot more contemporary poetry than I do, so he does a new book of poetry almost every time he teaches the course (in addition to using an anthology).

For those of you who teach poetry courses, do you teach a book of poetry? (By a single author, for example?) Which books have you taught (or do you love) that seem to work especially well in the classroom?

Does anyone notice a blip when a bookstore orders up 30 copies of their poetry book all at once?


  1. Not a teacher, but three suggestions anyway -

    How to Get Heat Without Fire, Marilyn Kallet

    Unfinished Painting, Mary Jo Salter

    The Seven Ages, Louise Gluck

  2. Maybe Stephen Dunn, Different Hours. Or too middle-aged themed for them?

  3. Anonymous5:40 PM

    Poetry is always part of my courses, but I almost never get to teach a book of poetry (except for the courses that focus on one "big" author -- so we do those books). But I'm so glad you posted this because I've had a poetry post brewing my head the past week or so, about teaching poetry. So perhaps I will try to articulate the things I've been pondering since they overlap, a bit, anyway.

  4. Because half my gig is to teach CW classes, I teach books of contemporary poetry every semester. I tend toward books that are clearly books, as opposed to a bunch of poems bound together any which way--that is, books that have an argumentative/aesthetic arc, books that hang together. Recent fave books to teach: Louise Gluck's The Wild Iris, Maurice Manning's Bucolics, Jay Hopler's Green Squall, Brian Turner's Here, Bullet, and Catherine Barnett's Into Perfect Spheres Such Holes Are Pierced. I love these books because the poems depend upon one another, build upon one another. And that helps the focus remain on the poetic process as the deliberate construction of an artifact. Because, though you didn't quite ask this question, I actively discourage my students from trying to get at what the author must have intended, based on whatever knowledge they might have about the poet or his/her context, and my particular hobbyhorse is to make students believe that a poem isn't ABOUT something, a poem IS something--it's a constructed thing evidencing a range of decisions from punctuation to etymology to line breaks and so on. Despite my longwindedness here, I'm not trying to tell you what to cover; just trying to explain why a coherent BOOK helps me to make these points better than individual poems (which are too often believed by students to be merely a kind of journal entry with line breaks) can.

  5. Several professors at my uni use Natasha Trethewey's Native Guard. The students seem to respond well.