Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Burt: What you find difficult depends on what you already find easy

Complex and difficult are often conflated.

I’m finding Poets on Teaching: a Sourcebook, edited by Joshua Marie Wilkinson to be continually useful, both in the classroom and in my own thinking about poems. Some conceptualizations I agree with, some I disagree with, but so far all have been interesting and worth the candle. This week I’m thinking along with Stephen Burt’s “How To Teach ‘Difficult’ Poetry and Why it Might Not be so Difficult After All.” I’ve long felt that presenting the history of poetry chronologically, especially in an introduction to literature course, to be less interesting, and less successful, than starting with the very recent present and working roughly backwards in a hopscotch fashion.

But what might this also mean in talking about the writing of poetry in a creative writing workshop? One doesn’t want to simply rehearse the present, but one must start there, as, well, obviously the students are writing their poems in the present.

It’s all about context. What context the students come from and what context they make together. That can be a problem as well as a benefit, depending on what that context allows or disallows for experience. But managing that context is part of the job of the mediator.

Anyway, I found Burt’s piece to be interesting as it raises several questions as it makes it’s major point: “What you find difficult depends on what you already find easy.”

It's difficult to imagine what others will find difficult.

So here are a few paragraphs snipped from his essay (These are pulled bits, as I didn't want to post the whole thing. Now you have something to look forward to when you get the book.):


The appreciation of any art, the ability to get inside it and see how the work is put together, what it is trying to do, comes in part from our experience of prior, related— maybe distantly related— art, related art with which we feel more comfortable, art we think we in part understand.

What you find difficult depends on what you already find easy; what you find comprehensible or enjoyable depends on what you already know. Randall Jarrell used to say that when he taught in Austria, his students found “The Waste Land” easy and Frost hard because they were used to Eliot’s moves, having encountered them in other languages, other art forms (e.g., modern painting), or in daily life: Europe as rubble, the world as disillusioned collage, the poet as Tiresias, helpless latecomer to history. Frost’s people, Frost’s world, and even Frost’s kinds of poetry (American eclogues, dramatic monologues, and neo-pastoral lyrics) were not what the Austrians thought modern poems could be. The most difficult poets for moderately well-prepared undergraduates to appreciate are not contemporary poets of any sort: they are the poets from before 1800 who fit neither modernist, nor Romantic, nor “confessional,” nor avant-garde, frame-breaking, shock-the-audience modes. Among all the poets who have exerted a great deal of influence over the course of the English language, the hardest to teach now is almost surely John Dryden.

All poetry is difficult if you don’t have a way in, a sense of what’s represented how (which allows you to ask why); all poetry can be enjoyable, if not easy, if a teacher can make clear that way. I have seen West Coast poets with impeccable “experimental” pedigrees declare with some pride that it’s easier to teach beginners how to read Stein, or Williams, or Armantrout, than to teach the more advanced students schooled, or deformed, by reading (say) Heaney or Frost: the poets who say such things think that they are making a point against older forms of poetry, older modes of education, but really they are just demonstrating that teachers give students (among other things) expectations, and that students, in our culture, pick up few expectations about poetry outside of class.

That means that the analogies most useful in teaching many contemporary poets are not analogies linking one poet to others, one kind of page-based poetry to another kind, but analogies between a kind of poetry, a book of poems, and some other kind of art form—kinds of pop songs, kinds of non-song-based pop music, kinds of prose (love letters, op-eds, satire a la The Onion, blogs), kinds of film, or kinds of scenes in films. You shouldn’t stop with those analogies, since all good poems use tools specific to poetry, but they can make the best places to start.

In the end, difficulty is a personal issue.


At 10/19/2010 11:10 AM, Blogger Michael said...

Good to hear. So many essays trying to introduce readers to poetry (contemporary or otherwise) seems to start out by saying, "I know poetry is difficult but . . ." when what they should be saying -- and what you seem to report Burt is saying -- is "Poetry's not that difficult."

You're right about "pre-1800s": When I taught adjunct at Quinnipiac, students thoroughly enjoyed and "understood" Christian Bok and John Ashbery, while struggling (to enjoy if not understand), say, Tennyson.

At 10/19/2010 11:20 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

A friend of mine wrote to me the other day. We'd been talking about how to teach pre-20th century poetry to undergrads. I'd told him I was at a loss, pulling my hair, that they seemed to get Ashbery and Armantrout just fine, that they found the stuff humdrum, even, but that the Romantics and Victorians were to them as if another species altogether. What IS this shit, they keep saying... So this is what he wrote back in advice:

"I prescribe the following -- Swinburne. The students should be taken beyond any hint of a classroom setting. They should be asked to wear some kind of harness (one of my students once even had an actual bit in his mouth and this seemed to encourage him) or other constraining vestment; it could even be a disguise, just a mask, or whatever device they choose, something to make it fun. They should then be asked to read, taking turns, something like 'Triumph of Time,' the whole thing-- read aloud, outdoors and preferably near a body of water (the sea, ideally, but even a pond or stream will do), and very loud, to really gallop the crap out of those trochees and anapests. Dryden works, too, though the rhythm tends to be reversed, but this is not important. I've gotten tremendous results from this unusual exercise, and the students unfailingly mention the experience in their end of term evaluations."

I'm not making this up, and I have every reason to believe my friend is serious. I guess the message would be that getting students to connect to antique forms of poetry does not necessarily depend on what the teacher SAYS or how she EXPLAINS it. Some things have to be felt, and the teacher's job is to put students into situations where they might feel it.

At 10/19/2010 1:01 PM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

And then my friend went on to say this:

"...because it's also (no news flash, I know) the real lesson of class struggle; that abstract
propaganda by itself -- screaming headlines and r-r-r-r-r-revolutionary boilerplate in
the endlessly flogged (Swinburne again) leftist gazettes -- doesn't change consciousness; it
is really only altered and advanced in the course of actual struggles (nothing like seeing
the cops herd the scabs in before knocking you on the pate with a baton to realize they're
not "your" friends, etc). It is interesting how applicable some of those old "lessons" are in
other areas... like in teaching Poetry! [....] Yeah, I fear the Trotskyists are probably rushing to catch up in France, with the students at least. I read that they (the former LCR, now the New Anti-capitalist Party) didn't even raise the slogan for a general strike until they heard the youth calling for it."

At 10/19/2010 1:53 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I'm still trying to process the image of being out in the grass with my students all wearing bridles.

At 10/19/2010 5:15 PM, Blogger David Grove said...

Absolutely. I started reading Ashbery at 18, and I didn't find him difficult at all. I knew what he was doing. But when I picked up Ben Jonson I thought,"Why would anyone want to read this?"

A few years later, Russell Fraser at the Univ. of Mich. helped me appreciate Jonson a little more. And a few years later still, the then Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky's quietly impassioned recital of "Have You Seen But A Bright Lily Grow" on TV made me realize how cool Jonson is. The anchor people would have looked less uncomfortable if Pinsky had turned the air blue with FCC-forbidden obscenities! Pinsky then sipped his coffee, looking bemused, apparently thinking, "Whoops! Just peed on the rug by breaking our tacit agreement to be frivolous and intellectually insipid." It was sort of like watching footage of John Cage or John Cale on What's My Line.

At 10/19/2010 6:35 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

That was John Cage. I saw that bit on YouTube at some point a couple years ago. It was such an odd moment. I remember that there was a problem with one of the unions and he wasn't allowed to plug his radio in so rather than play it he threw it across the room. Or something like that.

Certainly a moment that prepares one more for John Ashbery than Robert Frost.

At 10/20/2010 12:05 AM, Blogger Yamin said...

the analyses of ARE YOU HAPPY is good


At 10/20/2010 11:33 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

>I'm still trying to process the image of being out in the grass with my students all wearing bridles.

Well, you can't be a poet without a bridle.


At 10/20/2010 12:18 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I'll tell the police you said that.

At 10/20/2010 1:10 PM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

>I'll tell the police you said that.

You bet. That would be the mounted police... They're everywhere.


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