- Unrequired Reading
One of the new poems in Mark Doty's Fire to Fire, winner of the National Book Award, opens with an expression of concern painfully recognizable to those who value the study, teaching, and reading of works written any longer than a few years ago:
The old words are dying,everyone forgets them,pages falling into sleep and dust,
dust and sleep, burning so slowlyyou wouldn't even know there's a fire.Or that's what I think half the time.1
In many American secondary schools, the study of literature has become "language arts," sometimes for good reason, with a diverse curriculum that includes texts written for the YA market, and a strong move away from survey courses in national literatures. Even twenty years ago far more colleges had campus-wide literature requirements than they do today, diminishing the likelihood of an initial encounter with the works of Keats and the Shelleys. In a future without literature requirements, without at times even departmental structures built around what "English" came to look like in the age of The Well-Wrought Urn or Practical Criticism, there will always be students who find Keats and Shelley, albeit through different paths and winding mossy ways.
I anticipate, in other words, a reversal of critical history. For if Shelley's vegetarianism was an embarrassing obstacle for T. S. Eliot, in ten years it will be a more likely vehicle for new readers to find Shelley than any appeal to literary tradition. In a parallel way, most of my current undergraduate students are full of such dismay at organized religion that each word they write echoes Keats's poem written in disgust of vulgar superstition. Yet this does not obviate a more than vestigial longing for the sacred, for the air itself to be "holy" as it is in Keats's "Ode to Psyche." Belief and unbelief are not incompatible.
In Doty's poem, his opening lament is tempered by what follows: [End Page 177] a revival of confidence in the "old words" comes through the recital of "Ozymandias" by a Texas teenager in a "Favorite Poem Project" event organized by Robert Pinsky. When Doty later met the teenager (named Craig) again, he reflected that
Here was something of the gift-giving nature of art: Shelley gave Craig a gift, Craig gave one to me, now I've given something back to Craig. The giving is not direct and not even really personal; Shelley gives hi[s] poem to anyone, Craig read to anyone who was there that night, I wrote my poem for whoever to read.2
It may seem naïve to remove Shelley's poem from its commodification, or alarming that such insights may do little to defend the funding of humanities departments, but what hope we have for future readers resides in the notion that "[t]hat's where the odd, sweet generosity of poetry resides." The future is extracurricular and lives through the circulation not of requirements, but of gifts.
William Stroup is Professor of English at Keene State College, New Hampshire's public liberal arts college.
1. Mark Doty, "Apparition (Favorite Poem)," in Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems. (New York: HarperCollins, 2008), page 9, lines 1–6.
2. Doty, "Ozymandias on Bissonet." http://markdoty.blogspot.com/2008/12/ozymandiason-bissonet.html Accessed 15 March 2019.