By Andrew Kay. Andrew Kay is a Ph.D. candidate in Literary Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he is at work on a dissertation about Romantic and Victorian poetry. He has worked at the Writing Center since Fall 2009.
Toward the end of his life, Robert Frost wrote a wonderfully mysterious poem called “Directive.” In it the speaker coaxes you to accompany him to a simple, primordial time and place removed from the clamor and chaos of modern urban life–a space of renewal and wisdom, a sanctuary. To arrive at this fantastical, trippy no-place, you have to get lost first; and, “if you’re lost enough to find yourself,” you’ll make your way, in time, to a special goblet lodged in the inside of a tree-trunk, a grail-like chalice that, when drunk from, will make you “whole again beyond confusion.” Never mind that the goblet comes from a make-believe dinner-set belonging to children long-since dead; just drink deeply from it, and don’t ask questions.
Maybe it goes without saying that Frost was talking on some level about the experience of reading poetry. To be sure, there’s something fundamentally disorienting–and therefore humbling–about poetry. One of its hallmarks is its sheer strangeness, how it greets us with all the discomfiting weirdness of a foreign language, playing stubbornly by its own rules, making words stretch and contort in ways they’re not accustomed to doing. Better: it forces us to learn our own native language afresh with each successive poem we encounter. But–here’s what old Bob was getting at, I think–this can be an amazingly healthful and exhilarating experience. Poems make us willfully submit to getting lost, to abandoning all our stale habits of mind and everything we think we know–and this lostness turns out to be the prerequisite to order, understanding, wholeness. We’re temporarily reduced to children learning to read and see from scratch, and we end up, if we’re persistent, having remapped the coordinates of our selves and our place in the world.
So, fine. All this is well and good, but what happens when we writing instructors are faced with the task of having to coach students to write reflectively about poetry? Most young people–heck, most people–have no use for poetry, or, worse, adamantly dislike it. Part of this is surely owing to that strangeness, that willful opacity: who in the age of Twitter and Facebook has the patience to brood over a poem for hours, days, weeks, until it finally renders up its secrets? Why can’t they just come out and say what they mean? many of my students pout when given a poem to analyze. It’s a common complaint, and one that often leads to a vibrant class debate–or, in the case of a writing center tutorial, a fruitful one-on-one discussion.
In the most successful conversations, we eventually come to a line in a poem that’s so deeply ambiguous and fraught with significance, the students gain real admiration for how many possible meanings–often meanings sharply at odds with each other–the poet managed to cram into a few words. I like to write these interpretations on the board (or on a piece of paper, as the case may be) as the students voice them, then step back and say something like, “Do you see why all this would have been lost had the poet just said the same thing in everyday speech? How all that concentration would have evaporated?” (And I probably sound annoyingly preachy.) Sometimes, students also say cool things to the effect that there are gradations of feeling and thought that ordinary speech isn’t equipped to get at, and so poets have to resort to indirect means. Or that certain cunning arrangements of words and images simply give a rush of sheer pleasure that more familiar ones don’t.
But here’s my point: I’ve got this theory that teaching students to write about poetry is one of the very best methods for training them to think in deep, sophisticated ways and to transmute that thinking into nuanced arguments; that, as writing instructors, we would do well to avail ourselves of poetry more than we perhaps already do. You know that thing F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said in “The Crack-Up” about the sign of a first-rate intelligence? How it can “hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and not lose the ability to function”? Poetry, with its often intimidating concentration, its ability to make rival ideas coexist, however uneasily, within the space of a single line or set of lines, is peculiarly suited to do just this. Struggling to wrap their heads around the most loaded lines, students develop more capacious imaginations; they become more adept at mentally balancing all of the different, often competing threads of thinking that run through a poem.
Even before they’ve set pen to paper and drafted a thesis, students have already experienced something really valuable: they’ve gotten lost. They’ve experienced their own language in a way that’s utterly alien; they’ve construed a whole set of potential interpretations of individual lines and of the poem as a whole, which the poet doesn’t necessarily bother to reconcile. In other words, they’ve existed in that state of uncertainty that another poet, John Keats, called “negative capability”–the condition of being caught up amid contradiction and doubt, and being entirely okay with that, not losing the ability to function. (I wonder if Fitzgerald, who was obsessed with Keats, was thinking of negative capability when he wrote “The Crack-Up.”)
Precisely because of its compression, I think poetry is specially fitted to inspire subtle, balanced arguments in student essays. Not that short stories and novels are immune to the same pregnancy of meaning, equivocation, and plain richness; anyone who’s read the ending of James Joyce’s “The Dead” or picked most any passage at random from Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead knows that fiction can aspire to the condition of poetry. But poetry is such a useful pedagogical tool because it’s habitually, definitionally that thick. It’s the bouillon cube of literature. All that stuff we love to preach to our students about the prismatic shiftiness of literary texts is writ large in the span of a single page, stanza, or even, very often, a simple pairing of words. Most any poem that’s worth its weight in salt is strewn with phrases whose sense you can sit around agonizing over for hours. Which is to say, you can formulate arguments about them.
When I think back on my years working at the Writing Center, I realize that many of my most rewarding meetings with students have been those in which we’ve had to figure out a poem together–or rather, I’ve had to create a space in which the student could decide what he or she wanted to argue about a poem. Right now, one particular meeting is coming to mind, a session I had at one of our satellite locations last fall with a freshman who was writing about Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” The paper was due the following day, and she didn’t have much. I decided to start by asking her to circle phrases in the poem that seemed weird, puzzling, potentially rife with significance. Among the ones she chose, I singled out “Cold Pastoral!” from the last stanza; I’d read the poem a zillion times and had a sense that phrase might take us to the heart of its meaning.
So then, what the hell was a cold pastoral? We chatted about what a pastoral was, and I asked her to rattle off her associations with that word: countryside, idyllic, sunshine, peacefulness, simplicity, sheep. Quickly it became evident that pastorals weren’t cold, or shouldn’t be. We talked about how these two words resonated with other Keats poems in the Norton Anthology: the “warm South” of the Nightingale ode, the “warm fields” that famously inspired the ode “To Autumn,” and of course the (apparent) “warmth” of this poem’s lovers, locked in futile flirtation, their foreheads “burning”; the coldness of Keats’s own corpse as it reaches towards us menacingly from beyond the grave in “This Living Hand.” The phrase seemed to conjoin life and death.
She decided the urn presented an inverted pastoral, one in which the figures–the lovers, the denizens of the mountain town–were living a cheated life-in-death that, while superficially pleasing and graced with eternity, was bereft of everything that made life worth living. I kept praising and encouraging her, and I think this made her feel much more relaxed. I also wrote down her best insights as she said them, which helped give the sense we were genuinely collaborating. Her initial insight about the urn sparked a whole bunch of related, valuable thoughts about other parts of the poem: that the urn’s scenes were “sweet” and “flowery,” but that these words could be read as pejoratives, that they connoted superficiality; how the sacrifice of the heifer paralleled the analogous sacrifice that one makes in departing the world of the living, with its transience and suffering, for the timeless world of art–we lose our chance at love.
I thought this last idea was, well, awesome. I’d never read the fourth stanza that way. I told her again that she was on a roll. Then I encouraged her to try her hand at free-writing a thesis, not worrying about whether it sounded smart or polished, while I walked off and got a snack. When I came back she’d drafted something to the effect that Keats was quietly subverting the urn in his poem, hinting that, as an emblem of art itself, it was tellingly barred from the best and deepest things of this world, containing only a fragmentary parody of real, pulsing human life. That process, if it accounted for suffering and death, was also the reason for beauty, pleasure, happiness: these things were what they were precisely because they were forever poised to become their contraries.
I pushed back a little bit. “So then, how do you explain ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’?” I asked. (We both assumed it’s the urn that speaks this line.) She maintained, first, that the urn wouldn’t know truth if it hit it on the head, since it was only acquainted with a woefully abridged version of reality; and, second, that it actually reinforced her argument, since, as she’d written in her draft, it was the hard “truths” of experience that accounted for beauty in the first place, even as they made life occasionally tragic.
We worked some more on the wording, fleshing out that thesis as clearly as possible, discussed how to organize the body paragraphs, and then were done. I looked at my watch: it had been an hour and a half. This was, well, the sort of meeting we writing instructors imagine when we’re being naively idealistic. Everything simply seemed to fall into place. Later I read where the student had gotten one of UW’s undergrad writing awards for the paper, and this confirmed that it had been sort of a special session. What made it especially pleasing for me was the knowledge that I’d managed to elicit an argument from her that she sincerely wished to make and could take ownership of, rather than gifting her my own ideas. The fact that it was a classic argument about Keats’s poem that had been made plenty of times before hardly mattered; it was new to her, and many of her supporting ideas were surprising and, at least, new to me.
At any rate, I think we both walked away from the meeting feeling a sense of real accomplishment–exhilarated, proud, and, for a passing moment at least, beyond confusion.