- The Poetry Hour
I have abstracted this hour from thousands of actual hours in the classroom, constructing it from many memories more or less accurate, and where memory failed, from freely imagined procedures and inventions, all true to life. I mean to give a vivid description of one way of teaching poetry, a way that arises from my convictions about what the young can gain from the study of it—convictions, I might add, that I rarely if ever articulate in class because it seems to me of the highest importance that they be realized as they may emerge in the activity of reading and living, and not be handed over lightly as items to be jotted down in notebooks, like dates or definitions.
Ben Jonson wrote, “Wheresoever manners and fashions are corrupted, language is. It imitates the public riot.” Pound said something of the sort; if I remember aright, he had it the other way round—where language is corrupted, so is the public thing. I see myself as working against this corruption (in which I participate, willy-nilly), to purify the language of the tribe, to lead the students to contemplate, and exult in, the powers of the imagination, without which we are “invalids of reality.” The task seems Herculean, the young men and women in my classes having grown up in a society where that corruption is far advanced, where they are immersed in a trivial and mindless popular culture, where “it’s easy to see without looking too far/that not much is really sacred.” The Greek poet Odysseas Elytis once said in an interview,
The entire mechanism that collaborated once in the composition of an impeccable and original page, whose every nuance, word match, comma, [End Page 138] each dash, pause, parenthesis produced a unique physiognomy, a mechanism that—no joke—claimed lives in its service, is gone. No customer exists for this page, no worshipper for this frieze of written speech.
My own act of devotion is to hold the poem up to the light, so that the students will see it clearly and perhaps be moved to join in, and then later hold it up for themselves, whenever and wherever, for their own delight, for what Borges liked to call “el thrill,” without need of teacher or critic. “Readers,” said Randall Jarrell, “real readers, are almost as wild a species as writers; most critics are so domesticated as to seem institutions.” Rilke says somewhere that works of art are of an infinite solitude and are to be reached not by criticism but by love.
How on earth is this to be taught? How is it to be reconciled with the demands of the classroom hour, the business of papers, exams, and grades, and with the urgent need to teach young and usually superficial readers how to pay the most minute attention to a sentence, to a line of verse, to read slowly and actively—physically, really—and bring to bear all their energies, everything they know and feel and have lived through? For this practice itself, necessary and valuable as it is, can be misleading and alienating and become a substitute for the experience it was supposed to lead to. Just as a disciple may fall in love with the discipline and lose sight of the end to which it is the means, so it is easy for an undergraduate to get hooked on close reading and the allure of authority and control, easy to feel proud to have got at the meaning of poems, and miss, perhaps forever, the physical, wordless exaltation that poetry can produce—“a form of happiness,” says Borges, “perhaps the highest.” I believe that no one has written about this problem more clearly or eloquently than Edwin Muir:
All of us who have felt it [falling in love with poetry] can remember that encounter, which seemed to open out the feelings and imagination, as love does, and made us happy and vulnerable in a world not eminently sympathetic to poetry. This is the state in which our dealings with poetry begin; if we miss it we miss almost everything; and if we encounter poetry in some...