Monday, April 25, 2005

Teaching/Reading Poetry + On Communication and Difficulty in Poetry

Back in February, I added my responses, on the Cave Canem listserve, to a series of posts by poets Christopher Stackhouse, Reggie Harris, Mendi Lewis Obadike, Evie Shockley, Jarvis Q. DeBerry and others concerning communication and difficulty in poetry, which arose after Reggie posted an interview with the poet G. E. "Gar" Patterson.

What sparked the exchange was Gar's (very Deweyan and Bourdieuvan) statement that

Accessibility is so often an issue of education—of being educated to believe that you don’t have what it takes to experience or appreciate a work of art. Or of being educated to believe that someone else will be unable to experience or appreciate a work of art. Perhaps the whole issue is turned around. Perhaps we should be asking if people are open to the work of art, if the reader/listener/viewer is accessible. Being open is not effortless.
to which Christopher responded with

.....yeah, like how do you avoid the tyranny of the "closed"? And like, how do you use form without being used by form? How does a reader/viewer learn to come to work without preconceived notions at the fore of their present experience? He's discussing a set of terms that are (re?) defining the role of contemporary poetry, or rather a way to comprehend something important about it.
Mendi talked about approaching poetry in her teaching, and Reggie noted that a student and his mother at the Pratt Library's Humanities department was struggling to understand Cummings's poem "somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond," and later cited a line ("Star circle me an axe") in a poem, "Love in the Weather's Bells" by Jay Wright, a poet often labeled as "difficult" and consequently less frequently read, that he did not comprehend. Jarvis, who expressed openness to different kinds of poems, suggested that poems should communicate ideas and experiences clearly, in language that we all could understand (which is to say, with simplicity), and stated, "Too few writers -- be they novelists, poets, essayists or journalists--write with clarity. And I'm not convinced they even want to write with clarity because it might subject their piece to being understood."

This is something I have been grappling with for years (in part because of my aesthetic leanings and desire to understand how language works, which is what I imagine most writers at some level do), and my brief response below hardly captures much of what I think; in fact, last fall, when I was teaching my undergraduate aesthetics course, I spent nine weeks guiding my students through a number of theoretical and critical approaches (chief among them for this discussion Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Pater, Dewey, Heidegger, Adorno, Wittgenstein, Sontag, Lyotard, Bourdieu, and Lorde, among others) for understanding the linguistic, structural and performative "difficulty," as well as communicative systems, of poems by such poets as Shakespeare, Mallarmé, Gertrude Stein, Harryette Mullen, and Franz Wright.

But in the responses below (which I've adapted for the sake of coherence) I wanted to respond with comparative brevity while also using as little theory as possible. Why? Because I think it's possible to explain what's going on in poems without theory (as we usually think of it), though it can be useful for an expanded argument. The best poems, in fact, by their very nature argue on their own behalf quite well. Here then are my two takes, the first concerning one particular experience teaching/and/reading poetry and the second on communication and difficulty in poetry.

On Teaching [and] Reading Poetry

Reggie, Mendi and Evie, I agree with you that showing vulnerability, your own struggle with a poem, or short story, or theoretical concept, is important--the students should have an opportunity to see you working through things, putting them together, figuring them out, and there ought to be a dialogue, a conversation. The idea of the conversation, the practice, the process, I've found, helps to open doors, for the teacher and student. Some people are more resistant than others, and we often have an idea of what we like, and yet, there are ways to reach each other, to open those closed doors. But they may not be quick or easy.

Reggie, concerning the Cummings poem:
Though I teach a lot more fictional, cross-genre and theoretical texts than poetry, as I mentioned to Christopher and you, right now I'm working with a graduate student whose field is contemporary literature. The student is brilliant and knows the works in other genres, as well her critical and theoretical texts more so than I do...but poetry presents a barrier. So what we do, and this is very old-fashioned, I know, is to read selected poems together, poems she has to have under her belt for her doctoral exams. To read them aloud. To reread them, slowly and then at what we think is the normal speed at which we'd read aloud, trying to see and hear and feel and understand what is going on. What we miss when we scan a poem on a page and say, "I got it." Or, "I like it." Or "I don't get it."

Or, "this is a poem presents a feminist reading of X/is a post-industrial critique of Y, etc." Or this poem is a pantoum/villanelle/free verse, is it a pastoral, an eclogue, etc.

All those elements are important and we engage them as well, but we try to look at every aspect, to let the poems steep before rushing into preset ways of understanding and seeing. We try to take the whole in and also break it down. What does the poem's form, its music embody? (This is so crucial.) Whom does it echo for you? What things--not just one thing--is this poet saying here? How is she or he saying it? Why is that important? What choices does the poet make and why? What is on the page and what do we bring to it? How is this making something happen and what is happening? What is clear is that any work of literature is replete with multiple meanings, not simply one, and accessing or understanding all those meanings is rarely easy. This is as true of Shakespeare or Donne or Keats as it is of Baraka or Lorde or Clifton.

Then we look at related issues, like biography, critical and theoretical ways of reading the poem's statements, and so on. Our answers are rarely the same, and we both learn from our responses.

I've found that as we do this, and discuss the poems, whole new vistas have opened up for me as well. It's very possible to do in a larger class, and could be more of a challenge with student work than work by authors you've had a chance to read and think about, but it is possible, and the conversations that result are invaluable.

Re: Rap/hiphop--another discussion, but how much of this has to do with what Walter J. Ong talks about in terms of orality and the importance of certain kinds of aural abstractions, pre-set formulae, cliches, and community-based understandings of oral forms, narratives and poems that do not work as well on the page, that brook different expectations, in terms of aurality, memory, transmission and comprehension?

Copyright © John Keene, 2005.

Then, in response to subsequent responses, particularly Jarvis's comment that

If a stroke took away your ability to read, you could still enjoy the sunset, Miles Davis' "So What?" or a hug from a friend. But you couldn't feel a poem, no matter how long or hard you looked at it. It's an intellectual pursuit. And as such, our intellects desire that poems mean something, not necessarily at the expense of them making us feel something. But if you write it, I assume that there's an attempt at communication, and as such I want to know what the message is.

I posted:

On Communication and Difficulty in Poetry

"Love is a word, another kind of open." (Lorde)

I'm going to wade in here to say there are many ways a poem can "communicate"--it need not offer a set transparent message that can be reduced to a simple semantically reducible and coherent statement, which is to say, a logical statement. "If X then y" or "X+Y=Z." Some poems do but many, perhaps most, do not. Many poems do in most parts but most not in all parts, not even those in the simplest forms and language, such as haiku. Didn't someone once write that poetry was "violence done to everyday language?" Isn't poetry, by at least several definitions, an expressive form of language that emphasizes language's aesthetic, musical and figurative aspects beyond the semantic and denotative? Poetry isn't speech, or an essay or a billboard, etc., though it may mirror all of them. A poem, like a novel, can communicate, as does music or the experience of dancing, etc., through feeling, AS feeling. That can be the primary means of communication, though we derive something else in and from it. And what it communicates to us might be quite different from what the author intended, as you know. The poet might not even realize the meanings the poem communicates. That is fine too--because the poem is ultimately autonomous even as it is embedded in the broader context, the social framework, the linguistic system in which it was created, in which it exists.

By feeling, I thought Christopher Stackhouse and others didn't mean mere sensation, which is what a kiss involves in one sense (touch, taste, possibly smell and sound), but psychological and emotional feeling, that is, responses that both are involuntary (hardwired in us) but which also entail and require intellection, thought. Isn't this the case, doesn't emotion provoke and involve thought? Don't works of art, including literature, provoke immediate emotional responses at times that we simultaneously try to process in that moment as well as later? The structure of music is intricately tied to mathematics, which is perhaps the most purely formal of all the sciences, isn't it, and no musician worth her or his salt would deny that at varying levels, they make choices in how they play, what they play--they think about what they're doing, because they're not automata, robots, mere processing systems or mere vessels of feeling (though some may actually claim to be no more than the latter).

"i do not sit in your mouth / to take your beauty." (Roberson)

Reggie (Harris), you may puzzle over that line in the Jay Wright poem "Love in the Weather's Bells," but really, do we understand every line in every poem we read? Let's review one of the most memorable stanzas from Gwendolyn Brooks's remarkable, brief poem "We Real Cool":

"We / Jazz June."

What exactly does that mean? We think we know but do we really know? Did Brooks? It is one of my favorite lines in any poem I've ever read, and not just because I love jazz and was born in June. But as a child that's what I thought it meant--something directly about my life. I have ideas about what it means and suggest them to students, but are they same as Brooks's? Do they need to be? Isn't the sheer beauty of this formulation--we [break] jazz june--enough, at least at first, for a while? Does it describe a verbal action (we jazz--do something jazz-like to--June)? A metaphorical equation (we are [like] jazz june)? Is it an apostrophe (we [are] like jazz, June!) Can these three words really be fully reduced? Do we want to do so? I wish I could write a line like that, beyond transparent meaning, so unforgettable, unselfconsciously--don't we all?

I think we probably hope we understand every word and line in every poem we write, but in fact, we do have the experience of writing things that may make us ask, "How did I come up with that?" "We / thin gin." It wasn't conscious, though we were conscious when we were writing (and not high or half-asleep or drunk). We organized the words in such a way that they created something eluding our immediately rational grasp; such is creativity. Sometimes too, the poet may want to create a moment, a sensation, of orality/aurality, as music, of images that operate at the level of undecodable figuration (metaphors, similes, etc.), that spark instant allegorical recognition, and so on. "We / strike straight." I don't think Wright goes as far as Stephane Mallarme or later poets (Hart Crane, H.D., Melvin B. Tolson, Russell Atkins, Norman Pritchard, etc.) who wrote poetry that pressed beyond conventional semantic or rational meaning, but in so many great poems, even ones that appear to be transparent formally and in terms of content, there are moments that are not easily assimilable or understandable. Is the highest goal transparency, or something else? We both like Amiri Baraka's poetry; now seriously, can you tell me that on your first or even fifteenth reading, you know exactly what "An Agony. As Now." or "Letter to E. Franklin Frazier" fully means? As with Hendrix or Ella Fitzgerald's scats or Eddie Jefferson's verbalizations, is it always necessary to know, or rather, to know exactly?

"We want to cease. No, we want the body / to cease." (Hamer)

Jarvis (DeBerry), if a person--let's hope no one among the Cave Canem family--experienced a stroke, depending on which lobe or area in the brain was stricken, that person very well might not be able to "enjoy the sunset, Miles Davis's 'So What?' or a hug from a friend." You might be able to still read, or process language, or hear poetry, etc., even though you can no longer hear; or see; or lose a sense of touch or taste.

Finally, a poem is not an instruction manual, though a poem can take that form, and a poet can write a poem that seeks to work in that way. (Even still, the language of the poem may elude or outstrip his intention.) One task of any reader--any reader who cares at all--is to experience the poem not only on the reader's terms (which in any case never fixed), but on the poem's terms as well. Looking at Cummings's or Hughes's or Sanchez's or Schuyler's works as if they could be read like a cookbook or a car manual *is* troubling, but this would be true of any poem, unless the poet specifically wrote the poems to have this function--though we'd also assume, at least from the perspective of poems as poetry, that such a poem would have other functions and convey other kinds of meanings and pleasures as well.

Isn't there more going on in this poem than just what it appears to say; because cummings's poem, like any good work of art, has layers of meaning. Cummings's layers may be more evident than works that appear to be formally and thematically transparent--works that might lead us to read them simplistically, to simply "feel" them, which is perfectly fine, depending on what you want out of a work of art.

"What did I know, what did I know / of love's austere and lonely offices?" (Hayden)

Copyright © John Keene, 2005.


  1. Take a look at Ron Silliman's blog for 4/25/05...wrestling with 'Difficulty' must be in the air!

  2. thanks for coming out with this John

  3. Hey Reggie, I just saw it--fascinating! I hope I represented your and M's comments correctly.