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Pedagogy 3.3 (2003) 441-450

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Teaching Ambiguity

Herbert F. Tucker

When you claim as a principal influence on your teaching a title first published in 1930, you seem to be bidding for a fogeydom old enough to look like new. Worse, when the title in question is Seven Types of Ambiguity, a book written by William Empson in his early twenties that, despite its crotchety topic, has not just stayed perennially in print but reappears now in fresh Penguin paperback, you seem to be bragging. Old fogey braggart that I am, then, I'd better back off the founding claim of this essay and admit that, like any teacher not an autodidactic prodigy, I learned my trade less from books than from people: the professors I found my unsystematic way to at Amherst in the sixties and Yale in the seventies and the students who have subsequently come my way at Northwestern, Michigan, Virginia, and elsewhere. What such face-to-face, by-the-by instruction about pedagogy has amounted to by now is more, of course, than I can say, although the running subtotal of it must travel with me each time I step to the lectern or lean across the seminar table. The point to make here is unpunctually twofold: when Empson etched his mark on my undergraduate brain, his quizzical formulations confirmed a lot that I [End Page 441] had absorbed in school already, whether by osmosis or by conscious mimesis; that said, the habits of a quarter century spent quizzing and formulating a classroom path of my own look in review—no: feel in actual proof—as if they were caught from Seven Types and are passed along now, however tamed their strain, in the hope that others will catch them, too.

I teach the reading and not the writing of poems: not composition, that is, but criticism, where criticism is an affair of imagination that happens largely in the mind but also calls on the ear, draws on the voice, and leaves what Empson (1947: 17) called "a sort of taste in the head." My poetry courses are nearly always electives, and the university students who choose them are nearly always led to the choice by a couple of headstrong and prima facie antithetical motives. The first is an irrational imaginative hedonism; it has to do with the magic of language, the blandishments of verbal melody, the officially touted beauty of inflections, and the counterculturally prestigious gallantry of nonsense. The other is an intellectual hunger for meaning, the libido sciendi that reads poetry for its themes, which usually means its morals, which sometimes means its politics; this second motive sponsors a dedication to the decoding of messages and solution of puzzles. These motives are so hard to shake off that they must be the homegrown first fruits of an inquiring mind's endeavor to consider and justify its habits of reading; they are also so widespread, and so consistently manifest across student generations, that they must at the same time indicate coeval constants—never mind how evidently incompatible—implanted deep in the secondary-school pedagogy that equips pupils with language for describing, and thus to a degree prescribing, what they do when they read literature.

These contrary motives for taking an interest (or a college course) in poetry turn out to depend on each other dialectically. It's teaching, I think, rather than Empson, that tells me so; but I can't be sure, since on rereading Seven Types whole for the first time, I found just this dialectical codependency forming a key topic of chapter 8, the extra one that offers "some remarks" about what the foregoing chapters have been up to: "On the face of it, there are two sorts of literary critic, the appreciative and the analytical; the difficulty is that they have all got to be both" (249); "from poetical to prosaic, from intuitive to intellectual, knowledge; evidently these are just the same sort of opposites, in that each assumes the other is also there" (251). Empson having once shown me how to teach, teaching has now returned the...


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