The poems for this final week of the course are not meant to daunt you. I once closed a semester on Modern Poetry with Auden’s The Orators (all of it), and it seemed to break my students here at VCU. Once of them said, “I had thought things would get easier as I learned more.” So, yes, I had ramped up the difficulty of the syllabus toward the end. But this is another way of saying that without what preceded Auden’s fabulously impenetrable prose/poem/infographic hybrid, my students would have read (comparably) very little, and our conversation would have been something along the lines of a Finnegans Wake reading group, everyone basically hanging their heads in frustration and admitting they have no clue what is going on.
Here’s what I think. Some poems require very little of you but to follow along and emote with the lyric speaker. They seem intent on entertaining, instructing, distracting, or delighting us with one or another of the various rhythms or rhymes or figures we’ve discussed in this course. It may seem as though my emphasis on the visual aspects of poetry is best adapted to this sort of poem, the kind that conjures images and leaves it at that. I might have done very similar things with a course from a parallel universe focusing on another of the five senses (Audible Poetry anyone? sezpoem.wordpress.com?), in which we would just concentrate on the ways that sense can help us enjoy and appreciate poetry. But keep reading.
Some poems present you with a radical and unexpected shift right at the start, either in terms of the speaking voice’s oddities or the difficulty of figuring out what the context of the poem is (the who, what, where, when, why, and sometimes how). I would call this a deictic because I enjoy fancypants words, but this just means that the poem plops you down in an unfamiliar situation and a lot of your work is spent trying to figure out what is going on. Think of the first line of “Sailing to Byzantium” — “That is no country for old men…” Not very user friendly. During the first read-through, you may decide to ignore the missing antecedent for “That” merely because there’s enough else that’s hard to figure out, and you just decide to roll with it until it makes sense or you fall asleep.
This has not been just a poetry appreciation class, for which my main objective might have been merely to get you to love poems. That’s necessary, but not sufficient. What I really want is to equip you with the tools to take apart a poem and put it back together, to walk away from it undaunted and confident in your interpretation of it, in the same way you might a novel or a film. It’s like playing acrostics, sudoku, or crossword puzzles. I know newspapers are going out of style, but playing a daily crossword puzzle is one of my mother’s hobbies (hi Mom!). The Monday morning puzzle is easy, and the rest of the days get progressively more difficult until you hit the Sunday puzzle, which can take you all day. But the more puzzles she plays, the more quickly my mother can complete them. There are rarified words used in puzzles and nowhere else (lea?) merely because they’re short or in other ways convenient for connecting horizontal to vertical letters. It’s not as though you should start using those words in everyday conversation. It’s that they’re a convention of crossword puzzles that you need to learn if you want to get good at solving them.
I think this is a particularly apt metaphor for this class: don’t let the Sunday crossword puzzle scare you! Don’t read a poem like Dickinson’s “[My Life had stood — a Loaded Gun]” or Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck” and shake your head in bewilderment, or worse yet, say that people who try to derive particular meanings from it are ‘reading too much into the poem’ since after all ‘it’s just a poem.’ This is the language of cowards. At the same time, don’t read seemingly transparent poems like Fearing’s “Dirge” or Yeats’s “Politics” or Heaney’s “Digging” and think you know everything about it. This si the language of hubris. Perhaps knowing more context than close reading affords you may illuminate hidden meanings. Take “Dirge,”a poem which is fun to read for its free-verse pyrotechnics, but which also contains a marxist critique of capitalism written during the Great Depression. Or maybe Yeats’s “Politics” is more than a lecherous old man’s desire to be young and lusty again; maybe it also has a shout-out to “Westron Wind” that also casually dismisses the Spanish Civil War because it’s not as though the speaker can do anything about it–the wind’s not blowing.
Or, consider Heaney’s “Digging,” a poem about a son, as my UVA mentor Victor Luftig likes to describe it, who is visualizing his dad’s butt as he digs potatoes really really well. Seems pretty straightforward, but there’s more to this too. Potatoes have been a staple crop of the Irish diet for centuries, even though the soil there is rocky and wet and in all ways thoroughly unsuitable for potatoes, which are best grown in dry, sandy soil! It’s all “soggy peat” that “squelches” as you walk on it, a bog filled with rocks that make digging them up difficult, and which exhibit the “cold smell of potato mould” which cannot help but be an allusion to the Irish Potato Famine of the mid 1800s that decimated the Irish population. Digging potatoes turns out to be a skill the British forced on the Irish–even during the height of the famine, Protestant landowners kept their fields for grazing, since the British demand for beef was more profitable than planting a diversity of crops. That doesn’t mean the speaker is not proud of the way “the old man could handle a spade,” far from it. But it does mean that the comparison the speaker makes between digging for potatoes because of colonialism and digging with his pen (writing poetry) in English, the language of the colonizers, is much more interesting if you know a bit more about the author, Irish history, potatoes, etc.
So let this be an introductory course that gives you access to the Sunday morning crossword puzzle, since any poem can be encountered visually. I also want you to feel near-expert at tacking poems like Herbert’s “The Altar,” which looks like the thing it’s about. Or “Foolproof Loofah,” which at first glance might seem like a silly exercise in random letter scrambling, but in fact is relying on serendipity to let something meaningful emerge unexpectedly (“Lo! I foil frail profs,” although somewhat unnecessarily hurtful to someone in my position, is a pretty dextrous pushback from this poem against close reading).
I also want you to come away from this class knowing that poets themselves are still wondering how to define poetry, which was the first exercise I set for you–check out Nemerov’s “Because You Asked About the Line between Prose and Poetry” and tell me that sort of thoughtful, introspective evasion isn’t awesome. This sort of self-aware uncertainty is a feature of the genre, not a bug. Embrace it.