Stalked by Poetry

Stalked by Poetry

I think I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been reading more poetry lately. That is, I’ve been seeking it out — and also finding it falling onto my plate, so to speak.

I’m also noticing that opportunities to discuss poetry and to do close readings of poetry have been flinging themselves at me more and more as well. I’m almost feeling stalked by it.

I guess this is what happens when you keep seeking out poetry: eventually it returns the favor and starts stalking you. Not that I’m complaining.

Still, consider the following:

A friend sends me a poem and says: I’m struggling with this, what do you make of it? And I find the only way to make anything of it is to dig in, pull it apart, question it, hold it up to the light, and then write, write write. I wrote what was essentially a short essay, for the audience of one, my friend who shared the poem with me.

I’d like to publish it, but as the poem only exists in a print journal, not online, I’m still not sure what is kosher about reproducing it. I don’t think even for purposes of review and criticism can you republish the entire work. And yet for my essay to make sense, the reader should have read the entire piece. Because to read the piece, you’d have had to have bought the literary journal it was published in, how many of my readers would be familiar with the poem or have access to it? And if they can’t read the poem why would they care about my analysis of it? So the essay languishes because of my uncertainty about copyright. But I’m really proud of my work, I loved the poem, and I want to share both with the world. Alas.

A friend shares a poem with my on Facebook and another friend finds herself wanting to like the poem, but one particular phrase sets her teeth on edge and suddenly she’s a resistant reader and in response to her resistance I’m digging in, asking questions, reading more closely: what exactly was the poet getting at there? Oooh. Her question leads to more and more questions and suddenly a poem I already loved is much more interesting.

Would it be kosher to share my close reading of the poem here? With or without my friend’s concerns? I don’t know. I could ask for permission.

Ultimately it was a very productive conversation. We found common ground, at least in the idea that it’s ok not to love every poem, or even that it’s ok to mostly love a poem, but to very much wish the poet had done that one thing differently, or to determine that, lacking that one thing, you really cannot reconcile yourself to the poem. These are the moments that as a teacher, as a student, as a reader of poetry, I absolutely love.

And I wish more teachers allowed students space to really have their own feelings and reactions, likes and dislikes. I love what this teacher here writes. His questions and observations about teaching poetry seem right on. Of course he’s thinking of helping to shape the craft of students writing poetry, but teachers trying to teach poetry appreciation can also take a page from his book. Students need to be free to resist and then to question their own resistance. They will become much better readers if they do not feel compelled to give you what they think you want to hear but instead honestly grapple with the text on its own terms.

My friend shares a passage from Eliot’s Four Quartets on Facebook and a commenter wants to resist one particular word, the preposition “of” that he’d like to change to “by”. And I’d never have pulled that passage apart except that his question made me question the grammar: why on earth is it like that? It’s so confusing, so ambiguous. What exactly is it saying? Is the confusion the point? Is it meant to be ambiguous?

I really want to write this one out, and I think I will try to come back to it. I love Eliot so much and I love having my complacency challenged as a reader. I’d love to teach Eliot because I think I’d understand it so much more if I had more resistant readers to challenge the text, to challenge me.

A friend shares a poem that I mostly don’t understand but I love the imagery, the flow of it. I read it to the kids because there’s one image there I think they’ll get and appreciate, and maybe more of the poem too. Before I know it Bella and I are interrogating the poem closely: what does this phrase mean? What is this image doing? How on earth does this relate to that? Why does this quatrain sound so different than that one? Is it a quatrain? Is it a sonnet? I think it is, even if it doesn’t rhyme. A near-sonnet? And Bella suggests a possible reading I hadn’t considered and then another and our minds are weaving understanding in a passionate conversation, passing the shuttle back and forth, this and this and this falling into place until suddenly it feels like the light has gone on and the last puzzle piece slipped into place and suddenly I see how all the pieces are working together and it’s still a marvel and a puzzle, but I think I understand something more of what the poem is showing me, what it has to say.

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These are all rather vague, any one could become a formal essay, a work of close textual analysis. And maybe they will. But for the moment I want to write about not the poems themselves, but the act of reading, of puzzling at a text, of sharing the work of reading with someone else, a teacher, a classmate, a student, a friend or a stranger. There’s something magical about a classroom or a book group or just friends puzzling over a text together, when one mind resists and another is puzzled by the resistance. Or when one mind makes an intuitive connection and the others jump after it, like a pack of hounds racing together when one has caught the scent, they are all off on the trail, working in tandem, now one, now another taking the lead. This is what I love about being a student and about being a teacher: this alchemy whereby the sum reading ability of the group is greater than that of any single member, that somehow in discussion we are able to see more clearly, to delve more deeply, to understand with an almost preternatural clarity what would be obscure to each individual reading alone.

I’m also fascinated by the phenomenon of resistance and how the very push back against a text which seems to be saying something we don’t like or to be saying it in an infelicitous way, how that very moment pf resistance can become a door if we let it. If, instead of pushing against the doubt, we entertain it: No, let’s look again. You’re right, that doesn’t quite work. Why then is it there? We may ask: is this a moment where the poet fails? Perhaps the writer has lost his touch, maybe it’s a misplaced brushstroke, a color that’s slightly the wrong shade. Not every work is a masterpiece, after all. Some works are truly flawed. Somehow allowing for that possibility also, paradoxically, allows for me to question further and deeper, to probe and maybe to even discover something that overcomes my resistance and reconciles me to the poem. Maybe it is a flaw or maybe there’s something going on here that I’m missing. Maybe the flaw is in me as a reader? I learn to question the work, but also question the self: what is it in me that is resisting? Is it something personal, a question of familiarity, of resonance: Is it that this strikes too close to home? Does it tugs at something in me that I don’t want to face? Or is it a matter of taste: I’m not the kind of person who likes this genre? But even there… hearing why what doesn’t work for me is someone else’s favorite part, listening to someone else plead that the flaw is not a flaw… that also enlarges me and helps me to understand that other people aren’t like me and it is good that we are different.

Ultimately we all are enlarged by the process of close reading together. And even by the friction when we disagree with each other or when a literary work disagrees with us. That friction is fruitful. And this is what I love about the classroom, but I’m really enjoying the discovery that Facebook can function as this sort of space as well, that social media can become a place not only to share poems, but to discuss the art of poetry and to learn from other readers. And maybe even to teach as well. I’d love to have that carry over here into my blog space as well, to have more discussion of poetry. Please feel free to jump in and share your thoughts here or on any of my posts.

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  • So interesting. I have a bit of a parallel in that every alternate Saturday night another couple come for dinner and we read the Sunday readings together. The conversations are so fertile- as you describe when you hold text with respect, wonder, curiosity. Often as we wrestle with what is unsettling and hear each other’s perspectives, difficulties shift, themes connect. Current personal issues which we are carrying find their way into the conversation and are illuminated by default.

    I have also been watching the Sky Arts Artist of the Year competition. Watching the artists and the judges explore and interrogate the paintings is so fascinating. Plus there is time lapse video.

    • That’s lovely. Dom and I started dating when I joined a Bible study he was leading. I miss having that group of people to talk with and to dig into the readings with. We’ve tried, but somehow it’s not quite the same with just the two of us.

      The artists competition sounds fascinating and fun. There’s something so mesmerizing about watching artists at work.