In the autumn of 2004 I began an experiment with a teaching method that I hoped would combine the institutionally necessary economies of scale produced by lecturing with the real pedagogical benefits of teaching in small groups. Supported financially by a grant from the English Subject Centre and pedagogically by the experience of colleagues from the psychology and computing sciences departments at Glasgow University, I began to use public response systems (PRS) in some of my lectures. The lectures I chose were those that addressed the formal analysis of poetry, particularly of poetic meter.
"Some people approach a poem," I said to a lecture theater of third- and fourth-year students, "as if it were a cryptic crossword puzzle. They think that it has a hidden meaning and that their task as readers is to ferret it out. That approach can be successful, to some extent, if the poem is one that works like this—" and I put up an image of Holman Hunt's painting "The Awakening Conscience." The painting is familiar: in a cluttered Victorian drawing room, a woman with her hair loose on her shoulders is rising from the lap of a mustachioed young man who seems to be remonstrating with her playfully. But she is in earnest: she is clasping her hands and gazing into the middle distance with an air of sudden clarity. As readers with some experience of the Victorian novel, the students could see that the woman has had an illicit connection with the man but that she is on the point of renouncing him and beginning a life of virtue. I agreed with the students that this picture does indeed have a hidden meaning, that they can correctly identify that meaning through the two central figures, and that they could also interpret the details of the picture as they consolidated that meaning: a cat torturing a bird under the chair points to the true cruelty of the man's relationship with the woman; a glove discarded carelessly on the floor symbolizes the woman's virginity, given up as if valueless and now past rescue. The students seemed reassured to have their expertise as readers confirmed.
"But what if the picture is like this?" I asked, changing the projected [End Page 526] image from "The Awakening Conscience" to Jackson Pollock's "Blue Poles." "This painting is nonrepresentational: its only narrative is the narrative of the eye wandering over its random detail. It doesn't tell a story; and it doesn't divide into foreground and background, characterization and imagery. It doesn't tell you how you should feel about it. When you encounter a poem that works in the way that this painting does, searching for hidden meaning is not going to be successful. You need a different approach."
This is the instrumentalist version of my rationale for teaching the formal analytical skills of close reading of poetry. My experience of British undergraduates is that poetry, far more than fiction, nonfiction, or even drama, makes them feel unconfident in their interpretive ability. Poetry that draws attention to its own form is particularly apt to call out readerly anxieties. It seems to me that many students are aware that there is a body of technical knowledge dedicated to the formal analysis of poetry that they neither know nor particularly care to learn: hampered by their consciousness of ignorance, they often resort to the pursuit of a hidden meaning that may well be entirely imaginary.
One honorable pedagogical solution to this problem is to minimize the importance of the knowledge the students lack, to encourage them to read poetry without concerning themselves with form. This tactic can lead students into potentially disastrous misreadings, however, when they attempt to apply it to poems in which the form determines or shades the meaning. I fear that to avoid teaching formal analysis, and to encourage students to think of it as an "extra," is to diminish their pleasure in getting to grips with a demanding poem. I want my students to have the experience of exercising their imagination and forensic intelligence on poetry, using...