by Thomas Fink
Thomas Fink: In Recalculating (U of Chicago P, 2013), quite a few poems are labeled “after.” These include “Sad Boy’s Bad Boy after ‘Mad Girl’s Love Song’ by Sylvia Plath,” “Blown Wind after Douglas Messerli,“ “Loneliness in Linden after Wallace Stevens,” and “Umbra” (Apollinaire). Imitation, adaptation, parody, and translation are some nouns that come to mind, and you have much to say about the challenges of translation in In Unum Pluribus: Toward a More Perfect Invention” Pitch of Poetry (U of Chicago P, 2016, pp. 3-12), a talk originally delivered in China. What were you after in pursuing this aftering?
Charles Bernstein: Poetry is the company it keeps.
So often the scolds in American poetry have shamed us with proscriptions — stick to your own voice, multiplicity is duplicity or an empty gesture of — God forbid! — juxtaposition/disjunction. As if disjunction was not a means to creating new constellations. Disjunction without aesthetic transformation is realism; it’s the given. Yet all around us we see earnest calls for a diminished field of the lyric. For aesthetic revanchists, the nepohumanists I discuss in the final essay in Pitch of Poetry, “hatred of poetry” is one and the same as a defense of poetry. Such treacherous defenses founder on fear of uncontained contradiction and clashes of voice. While some hear such clashes as cacophony, I hear democracy in action.
Save us from those whose mission is to save poetry from poetry.
Poetry is a lost art and, for me, that means sounding the loss.
The translations in Recalculating and Near/Miss (forthcoming this Fall from Chicago) are personae, providing a way to pursue the radical seriality of the book with new swerves that nonetheless bring it all home. These transcreations are no more (or less) “other voices” than the rest of the poems in the book. While many of these “after” poems are translations, others take liberties, making transcreation a form of re-originating. That’s a way to describe my responses to poems originally in English by Plath, Messerli, and also to Stevens’s “Loneliness in Jersey City.” (I associate Linden with relatives, Auschwitz survivors, who lived there.)
The best account of my use of translations in Recalculating is a review of the book by Jed Rasula that appeared in Provincetown Arts (Summer 2003):
… Bernstein’s penchant for trying anything and throwing in the pantry with the kitchen sink risks making this collection seem more of the same—until, that is, the insistence of veiled lamentation makes itself heard. It’s as if his previous books have all been played in C major, so the shift to the key of E is haunting despite the apparent continuity of prior methods. If there’s a single component that announces the shift, it’s the plentitude of translations (at least sixteen, by half a dozen poets), most of them carefully chosen for theme, it seems, yet each translated with a different procedure.
Beginning with the wonderful “Autopsychographia” by Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa from 1931, and ending with a wistful croon, “Before You Go,” Recalculating traverses 185 pages of nonstop inventiveness. The Pessoa poem serves notice of the black grief that lies ahead, though its cleverness strikes exactly the evasive note that Bernstein’s own jauntiness often adopts:
Poets are fakers
Whose faking is so real
They even fake the pain
They truly feel
Another poet, Gérard de Nerval, gives voice to the grief near the end of the collection in “Misfortune”:
My morning star’s dead and my disconsolate lute
Smashes in the blackened sun of torn alibi.
In the tomb of every night, memories of
Venetian reveries raw rub the inconsolable
Pitch of the dark, where over and again
I love you.
“Misfortune” drastically contracts Nerval’s sonnet “El Desdichado” into a direct personal lament. Phrases like “torn alibi” follow the sound rather than the sense of the original French (la tour abolie—ruined tower), as the poet gradually brings Venice into view (a city not in Nerval), where his daughter died in 2008. Using other poets’ works as crutches for the expression of anguish might seem evasive but for the fact that it’s one of the longest-running practices in the history of poetry. Bernstein is also capable of the most disarming unrehearsed direct address: “I was the luckiest father in the world / until I turned unluckiest” (158). That this heartbreaking, heartbroken poem is preceded by the tender lament of Victor Hugo’s “Tomorrow, dawn . . .” reinforces a sense of poetry as the site of ultimate sharing. A welcoming place, as Recalculating itself proves to be.
Fink: Recalculating favors us with a tall order of metapoetry. Happily for some dessert lovers and citizens of Yorkshire, two such long poems have “pudding” in the title. If Emerson (who will come up again in another question) equated “sin” and “limitation,” you exert major metapoetic energy to oppose that “sin”—to combat what you’ve just termed “earnest calls for a diminished field of the lyric”; here, for example, is some marvelously collaged Robert Frostiness on “framing”:
Something there is that doesn’t love a frame
That wants it laid bare.
Before I made a frame I’d ask to know
What I was framing in or framing out.
Two frames diverged on the common road
& I, I could not choose the one for the other
So stood, astounded, in place.
For frames are what we are inside of.
Two frames are better than one
Three’s the thicket.
(“The Truth in Pudding,” 5)
What I draw from this passage is: a frame (context) is not “loveable” when we aren’t aware of its existence or influence and hence don’t know what it’s “framing out,” so “laying it bare” reduces its power to limit the potential for signification, and we don’t have to be “inside of” a single frame—what in a previous essay you called “frame lock” and connected to “tone lock”—but can have the pleasure and excitement of engaging with multiple frames in writing or reading a text, since there’s no such thing as performing these acts without any frames. Charles Olson may relate “thicket” to “cold hell,” but you like the complexity and “thickness” of going beyond, say, two contexts.
In “Gertrude Stein: the Difference is Spreading,” you perform a highly illuminating examination of various passages in Tender Buttons and the “Portrait of Picasso.” Contending that “thematic close reading … won’t work” and that “close scrutiny through an associational/ambient reading of the linguistic prompts and an allegorical reading of form” (Pitch of Poetry 90) will, you encourage readers to “let the figurative plenitude of each word play out” (88). And in “Echopoetics,” you praise how Marjorie Perloff will “note down… how possible associations read in conjunction with one another” (Pitch of Poetry189). To rephrase your response to my first question slightly, “disjunction” is not a loss of context but an opportunity for associations that engender “a means to creating new constellations,” new contexts.
However “ambient” it might be (chez Tan Lin), “associational reading” seems the primary way to arrive at two or three or more frames “diverging” and perhaps converging/re-converging as the writer or reader travels “the common road” of a poem. And the writing and reading of a poem is temporal; the frames aren’t in place all at once, and “the figurative plenitude of each word” becomes apparent when a word plays off another one. But I’m sure you want to say more about the theory and praxis of framing, unframing, reframing. What might I be missing in my account? What in the displacement and multiplication of frames goes beside, beyond, above, or below the work/play of developing associations?
Bernstein: When I speak of “frames,” I am thinking of Erving Goffman’s Frame Analysis.
People have sometimes felt that Goffman, like Wittgenstein, was a behaviorist, as if he thought there was no “real” (no referent), only the frames. No pea just the shells –– in your con game. Similarly, there are those who feel George Lakoff’s focus on frames means he cares more about “spin” than “policy.” Lakoff would say the focus on “policy” without frame dooms oppositional politics. There’s no vision.
Ron Silliman provides an aesthetically exhilarating exhibition of serial framing and reframing in Tjanting and Ketjak. On a narrative level, so does Paul Auster in 4 3 2 1.
Frederich Schlegel: “A really free and cultivated person ought to be able to attune himself at will to being philosophical or philological, critical or poetical, historical or rhetorical, ancient or modern: quite arbitrarily, just as one tunes an instrument, at any time and to any degree.”
Could poetry be spin for its own sake? As in the rhythm of toggling, shifting, frames? Frame oscillation is a way to allow for 4-D world scans, a way out of the 2-D (Euclidian) trap of much conventional writing.
We are limited to language not by language.
I have learned, painfully, how many rational people get apoplectic when you say that.
Only the imaginary is real.
There must be a great satisfaction in thinking that frames just get in the way, as if language was an obstacle to reality and poetry’s job was to remove it.
The imagination is not a lawn mower.
How annoying for poetry to embrace frames as if they were a long-lost relative visiting town for the weekend. Let’s have a drink! And there’s still time to see the Egyptian show at the museum.
I am for metaphor but against metapoetry. Maybe it’s because I am part of the congregation of Emerson of the Latter-Day Feints. We believe that one step in space is also a step in time.
“Meta” is just the real becoming conscious of itself.
Not polygamy but polysemy.
“Associational” reading as opposed to what?
But I’m getting dizzy. Didn’t we pass this oasis two hours ago? We’ll never get home.
Language is a paradise, why settle for more? Even if the offer is in cash.
When I was working in the kitchen of the Fenway Cambridge Motor Hotel, while in college, I thought the Yorkshire pudding mix was the salad dressing. None of the wedding guests complained.
Whose woods these are I think I know. There’s still time to run.
Fink: One dismal alternative to “associational” reading is not so different from mowing the lawn: to begin with a preconceived frame and then force associations that come up during the reading into that frame and discard associations that don’t fit the frame. In your terms: frame lock. I’ve done it a few times—for example, to speed through a dissertation and get a PhD—and later, I hope, I undid it.
You spoof on Jack Lack in “The Twelve Tribes of Dr. Lacan” (Recalculating 52), but when you say, “Only the imaginary is real,” I can frame your use of “the imaginary” (as a noun) in a Lacanian sense, though the adjective “real” is not the Lacanian “the real,” but something like “what is actual.” To follow this path might be to suggest not only that the individual cannot break out of the mirror stage but that there is nothing “real” beyond the “contents” of anyone’s imaginary: “LACK-anians focus on ‘the ache of lack’ and the desire to fill this void with ultimately unsatisfying and imaginary objects.” But then, in Lacanian terms, perhaps you are “really” dealing with the symbolic order, language, as “the real becoming conscious of itself.” Thus, the “obstacle to reality” is not language but considering language an obstacle.
It’s heartening to hear that you’re “for metaphor.” Some experimentalists have tenderly caressed metonymy and smacked metaphor upside the head, and I wonder if that’s such a generative form of discrimination. Do you find the privileging of metonymy over metaphor justifiable, overly prescriptive, or wrongheaded? Does the binary afford much traction, or does it fail to serve the “paradise” of “language” and thus deserve to be put out to pasture?
Only the imagination is real!
I have declared it
Time without end.
So Williams writes in his late poem “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” (Book 3), repeating the line from a slightly earlier poem, “The Host.” I echo Williams in “The Kiwi Bird in the Kiwi Tree,” the opening poem in Rough Trades:
I want no paradise only to be
drenched in the downpour of words, fecund
with tropicality. Fundament be-
yond relation, less ‘real’ than made, as arms
surround a baby’s gurgling: encir-
cling mesh pronounces its promise (not bars
that pinion, notes that ply). The tailor tells
of other tolls, the seam that binds, the trim,
the waste. & having spelled these names, move on
to toys or talcums, skates & scores. Only
the imaginary is real—not trumps
beclouding the mind’s acrobatic vers-
ions. The first fact is the social body,
one from another, nor needs no other.
The line is echoed a few pages later, in “Whose Language”: “Only the real is real.”
I mean “imaginary” in the sense of the world we perceive and live in. Freud makes palpable the consequences of thinking the symbolic is less real than the event itself, which is, voilà!, imaginary. For Freud, our memories, perceptions, apprehensions, traumas condition how we respond to the world. Lakoff and Goffman would speak of this in terms of framing. In Althusser it’s a matter of ideology –– the way we experience things as conditioned by the economic and social order. There is a racial imaginary, a gender imaginary, an ethnic imaginary, a class imaginary. And there are conflicts among and between them, which is where frames sometimes come into view. Marking such conflicts remain key to any politics of poetic form. Call it, marking time.
There are no innocent frames any more than there are natural ones. What’s delusional is the supposed common sense idea that we can get around all ideology/framing/language by clear or expressive writing. You could call this aesthetic neoliberalism.
“Only the imaginary is real” is not a statement of fact but possibility. The alternative is the shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave. Plato was right to ban poets for his version of the republic. The visceral sense that metaphors are what we live by is disruptive of the kind of authority Plato c(r)aved.
Metonymy is the figure of substitution and can be a cathected onto a site of loss, as a grave stone or a pebble you place on a grave. I have a set of cheap silver serving spoons from my daughter’s Bat Mitvah twenty years ago. Every time I see one of those spoons, I think of Emma and of that event. Fragments of things, split off from a scene or action or time or place or event, can come to trigger it. An allusion, a line from another work, may trigger the whole work: “Hurry up, please. It’s time.” Indeed, the first section of “The Waste Land” is full of such triggers, suggesting something traumatic. “Hold on tight.”
“A heap of broken images.”
Metonymy is linked to the fragment. Think of Schlegel and his alluring, cutting and quixotic Critical Fragments. Schlegel evokes the fragment as metonym for a lost and perfect ancient world, or better to say, for a utopian space outside our historical and broken world. In his practice of the fragment, Schlegel’s metonyms are not broken off from a whole but do their own thing: a part and apart.
Metaphor is not precluded by metonymy; sometimes they overlap. “the broken / pieces of a green / bottle” in Williams’s “Between Walls” are both metaphoric and metonymic –– of the poem itself (its broken up form) and the broken society that breaks off and discards the unwanted.
I’m a compulsive metonymist. Substitutions are the tissue of my text, whooping and Whorfing and generally making merry, at least for a time, before the mood turns black. Metonymy, that is, is not just the part standing for the whole (as in synecdoche) or substituting for something else.
In my poetics, metonymy is substitution for its own sake.
Fink: In your various books of criticism, you’ve oft mentioned Emerson. His advocacy of non-conformity has been important to you. In his prose, he often exhorts his readers to think, feel, and act on their own, without submitting to external authority. But then, I often sense the counterforce of highly authoritative, often sententious injunctions, frequently clothed in extremely broad generalizations:
Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world. (“Self-Reliance”)
Well, yes, “the integrity of your own mind” is extremely significant, and exploring morality is preferable to abiding by an inherited morality unthinkingly, yet am I to take his word that “nothing is at last sacred” except for that particular integrity? Hmm. I won’t get into the patriarchal generalization of “man,” but compulsory nonconformism does not sound like freedom. When compulsion—in this case, externally authorized—drives nonconformism, Pavlovian doggerel dominates the nonconformist.
Like Whitman, Emerson contains multitudes. Does he contradict himself? Is harping on his “inconsistency” a “hobgoblin of little minds”? Is he just exercising a “latter-day feint”? If you think there is a coexistence of anti-authoritarian and authoritarian rhetoric in passages like the one I’ve just cited, what do you make of it?
Bernstein: My students find Thoreau “arrogant” and “privileged.” But I would rather his arrogance and privilege than the pride of those who refuse to think for themselves or who decline to use whatever privilege they may have for some purpose other than to earn interest on it or to display their righteousness.
I desire to speak somewhere without bounds; like a man in a waking moment, to men in their waking moments; for I am convinced that I cannot exaggerate enough even to lay the foundation of a true expression. (“Conclusion,” Walden.)
That somewhere is neither here nor there; it is next to this world, not entirely of it. I fancy that imagination is an extravagance. True expression is a fantasy, a figure of speech that necessarily enters the world as self-proclaimed falsehood.
There are probably words addressed to our condition exactly, which, if we could really hear and understand, would be more salutary than the morning or the spring to our lives, and possibly put a new aspect on the face of things for us. (“Reading,” Walden)
“He never said a mumbling word.”
This is one way enslaved African-America poets of the 19th century addressed their condition exactly, veiled as a crucifixion.
“Not a word, not a word, not a word.”
To keep silent in the face of unspeakable cruelty is a defiant refusal. But the injunction “He never said a mumbling word” is not against saying but against mumbling, and indeed these words say. They are armor-piercing arrows whose meaning is performed.
To mumble or shuffle, to eat one’s words, is a still-current slur against the subaltern. It is the mandated masquerade of speech, two-faced, a wig: an inarticulate, subvocal mutter or grumble. It is speech supressed. Mumbling is the language of compromise, amelioration, obsequiousness, servility, fawning, assimilation, capitulation, appeasement, compliance, surrender.
Not a word but words, pressed into utterance/action as force of resistance. “An arrow from the Almighty bow” (to add Blake to the echochamber).
That this resistance is imaginary makes for its supernal beauty.
Fink: Well, maybe Emerson, along with Thoreau, thought that he couldn’t “exaggerate enough to lay the foundation” for the kind of oppositional stance he considered crucial to challenge the stranglehold of his New England milieu. However, there can be effective “saying” between egregious exaggeration and mumbling.
Bernstein: Maybe not always. It won’t surprise you that I like exaggeration and am suspicious of professionalization. “He never said a mumbling word” is neither exaggerated nor mumbling. That is its genius. It partakes of a different order of genius than Emerson’s. I am haunted by this work. Yet I am wary of juxtaposing my response to your question with a discussion of “He never said a mumbling word,” since it comes from a lifeworld that cannot be meshed or absorbed into a general account of 19th century American literature. The slave songs (or sorrow songs or spirituals) are incommensurable with the rest of American literature and need to be accorded their own cultural space, with an acknowledgement of their opacity, even as we recognize their profound influence. I cite this work to reframe the discussion for myself, to pull me out my habitual responses. But I recognize how precarious that is.
Fink: Thank you. I understand.
I surmise that the single words per line in “The Most Frequent Words in Girly Man“ (Recalculating 141-152) are what you found running the book through a digital word frequency counter, but maybe you rearranged the order. The single words per monostich in “Last Words” in Recalculating are taken from “Sentences My Father Used,” a poem in Controlling Interests (Roof, 1980). Here is a juxtaposition of the beginning and the end, which feel very different to me, due to the pattern of syntax:
slowly (57) …
In the opening part, the arrangement forces me to pay attention to the relation of the small, “ordinary” words in the second through fifth lines/stanzas within a textual “field” (if not “fields”) that refers to pointing, being, emphasis, and location/direction. In the second part, I can discern a mini-narrative about the recovery of the addressee’s mental state—and not necessarily a totally useful recovery. I don’t think of the “original” “Sentences My Father Used.”
Could you please say something about the framing devices in this poem and your intentions in using them? Earlier, you called yourself a “compulsive metonymist.” For you as a (re-)reader, do various words in these two texts act as metonymies for salient aspects of poems in Girly Man and/or for aspects of “Sentences My Father Used” respectively, or does your reading go somewhere else without pointing back to those texts?
Bernstein: They point back in a pataquerical way. The first word frequencies piece I did was in The Sophist (1987) and it was based on transcripts of psychoanalytic sessions (“Word Frequencies in Spoken American English”). It’s quite a long poem that starts with the most common English words, handled so beautifully by Kit Robinson in The Dolch Stanzas (1976). Those early sections have the beauty of the everyday, both concrete and spacious. But after a while, and in an uncanny way, a collective narrative begins to emerge. Around 2005, I wrote a suite of poems called “My Frequencies” which sampled the most commonly used words in Girly Man, The Sophist, With Strings, and My Way: Speeches and Poems. There is also one called “Words Used Five Times Girly Man.” These poems have a propulsive rhythm (especially when I perform them). I’m mining (and minding) the earlier works to create alternate versions via vectoral data slices. The poems provide a cross-sectional view of the source works. They illustrate a non-linear mode of reading not only for my work but any work. I kept the word frequency order but when words had the same frequency, I went with my preference. Subsequently, this kind of “distant reading” has become popular in the digital humanities.
“Sentences My Father Used” sampled a recorded interview I did with my father, not long before he died in 1977 (so if not his last words, something like his last words to me). I use his interview as prior source for my poem, collaging it into the poem, which offers a sort of commentary on my father’s words or perhaps my father’s words offer the commentary on my poem. Poems have a funny way of being hijacked by their sources. “Last Words” was a simple procedure but struck me as very evocative, as getting at the heart of the poem by its, indeed, obsessive metonymy. That’s especially true of the final lines, which you quote. Those one-word lines convey the poem’s theme.
Derek Beaulieu did a small edition of Last Words (Calgary: No Press, 2005). I made a cover for the book which is a textual veil from “Sentences My Father Used.” In the image, you can see the source for the first five lines of ”Last Words”, which you quote. The first line of “Sentences My Father Used” ––“Cast across otherwise unavailable fields” –– is another way of getting at what I saying here. My father’s words, like my father, are both intimate and distant. The poems use textual refraction as a 4-D probe that allows me inside the words, but the content –– my father’s distance –– remains refractory.
Fink: I’d like to return to one of the “pudding” poems. In “How Empty Is My Bread Pudding,” the leaping from aphoristic section to section, I think, enacts what you “embrace,” “a poetics of bewilderment”:
I don’t know where I am going and never have, just try to grapple as best as I can with where I am. The poetry that most engages me is not theoretically perspicacious, indeed it has a poetics and an aesthetics but not a predetermining theory; it is multiform and chaotic, always reformulating and regrouping. (Recaluclating 83-4)
While rereading the poem, I frequently don’t know precisely how one section is (or whether it is) commenting on the one before, and I’m intrigued rather than frustrated by my bewilderment, though anxiety from uncertainties is perhaps mitigated by the fact that recognizable tenets of your poetics (like the one above) keep recurring, figured differently from before, at intervals.
In With Strings, you’d introduced, as you re-cite it in this poem, the notion that “’art is made not of essences but of husks’” (88), and you return a few more times to the motif of “husk”:
A husk is “the outer covering of an ear of maize”; mine was always that, enmazed, or, in other words, the inner lining of our outer aspirations. History is husk and eternity its other shore….
It’s also that the tunes that are going through my head are remote; they remind me of being reminded. “Sense remote” is like “husks” in that way….
The motif of poetry is just a husk. When it falls away you don’t get to essence but are drifting in time, like always, the strings maybe lifting you up (like a puppet?) or else playing alongside…. (89)
On the one hand, the “falling away” of the husk might prompt “a dread that the context that imparts meaning to our work is so fragile” (83). But if one adopts the dictum that “longing for nothing is often the only way to get anywhere” (85), then the husk, as the outer covering that reveals/unveils the “emptiness” within the “bread pudding”/poem, seems a way to experience bewilderment as openness to the absence of fixed referentiality, to travel without map or determinate telos. So there seems to be a metonymic relationship between “husk” and “bewilderment.”
In your process of writing a poem like “How Empty Is My Bread Pudding” and then reading it afterward, what reflections about “husk” and “bewilderment” and a pragmatic “grappling as best I can with where I am” emerge?
Bernstein: Here we were in medias res. Thar she blew. And all the time I thought it was my heart propounding.
Sometimes I think I talk in riddles, think in riddles. Or the riddle talks me. But mine are riddles without answers. Rattles.
I am riddled with echoes.
It’s not that there is nothing but frames any more than there is nothing but eyes or ears or minds. Our perception is informed and informing. Frames frame us, so naturally we want to beat the rap or at least protest the injustice. Problem is –– we are guilty as charged.
Beating the rap is the foundation of rhythm, in my prosody. And isn’t a wrap a kind of husk?
Imagine that the real is blank and that we come to terms with it by our midrashic overlays. What’s blank is not meaningless or void, it is a site of possibility. Paved roads with direction signs are fine but one thing a poem can do is “show the road.”
So husk is to frame as bewilderment is to grappling.
Fink: I believe that you’re nearing three decades in teaching after engaging in other kinds of labor. In “How Empty is My Bread Pudding,” we hear: “The issue of availability is in many ways external to what I do as a poet (in contrast, for example, to what I do as a teacher)” (90). How have the frames, echoes, husks, blanks, bewilderments, recalculations, dialogic give, torque, push, pull, shove, and nudge, riddling, rattling, and raddling that mark teaching infiltrated ways in which your poeisis founders, dis/dys/re-orients itself, succeeds failingly, and errs felicitously?
Bernstein: I address poetry pedagogy in two essays in Attack of the Difficult Poems which include a discussion of my deformance “wreading” experiments and the “poem profiler.” Erica Kaufman has invited me twice to Bard’s Writing and Thinking seminars for (mostly) high school poetry teachers; I feel a strong bond with those teachers and with the Bard program. Let me mention also the remarkable work Al Filries is doing with his ModPo MOOC and his PoemTalk series. A full set of my syllabi, going back to 1989, is available here.
My practice of teaching has something in common with psychoanalysis: it focuses on evenly hovering attention to what students write and say. The substance of my seminars is not free-standing lectures on literary subjects but situational responses to student’s perceptions and predicaments. Perhaps you could say I offer a kind of aesthetic therapy, opening up paths to reading by maximizing the ability to respond to multiple layers and kinds of meaning, to recognize impasses as formal features of a work, and to identify blockages, bumps, blips, and burps (just to keep it to b words) as part of the semantic spectrum. It’s on the spectrum! is my motto. My aim is never to convince a student that a poem is good (or bad) but rather show how it works, what’s going on. But to do that, students need to feel free to express (and develop) their tastes and preference and to be aware these are going to necessarily different than mine. (Say! Why should we share the same taste?)
Before every class, I read a response to the assigned readings by each student. These responses, not the literary work, drives the conversation. I sometimes get frustrated that this approach does not always allow time to read closely the works at hand, but that is the cost of the method. In my thirty years of teaching, I have never come into a class with a prepared lecture or any notes apart from notes on the student responses. And I am primarily interested, in undergraduate classes, in spotting “issues”: resistances, negative responses, incomprehension, frustration. In fact, I design my syllabi to provoke such “negative” responses, in other words, to engage with what is often thought of as “difficulty.”
My approach relates to what education advocates call “pedagogical content knowledge,” which in my line of work means awareness of learning difficulties for those new to poetry. So, in a class, I am more interested in discussing what a student didn’t understand, and why, then what a poem “means.” And I have become adept as spotting poem/reader “hotspots.” The best work I do is when I point to a comment by a student and say –– you could reframe this same reaction and look at this this way.
Acknowledging the student’s response as legitimate, rather than in need or correction to a predetermined “right” answer, or casting the student as naïve and in need of tutoring, I offer alternatives. In this sense, the student is never wrong. Even if an interpretation is totally unjustified by the text, the interpretation is “real,” so the thing to explore is how did such an implausible (imaginary) reading arise. That is the crucial discussion to have. And that includes even such an elementary parapraxis (Freud’s word for slips) as misreading a word.
Often it seems difficult to see the social or political value of writing poems; it’s remote, at best. Teaching’s value is tangible. Over the last thirty years, many critics (and mostly ones employed by a university) have instead that “Language Poetry” sold out its radicality when I (and a few others) took teaching jobs. It’s true I didn’t like universities much and had no connection with any from the time I graduate college to just a couple of years before I got a job as a professor at Buffalo (when I was 40). I think there are thoughtful things to write about a poet/essayist/scholar like me and the institutions we are part of. But while I often subject the literary academy to scathing criticism, I value highly the American university and I am grateful for the jobs I have had at Buffalo and Penn, for my colleagues, who often put up with me way beyond the call even of professional courtesy, but mostly for the many students with whom I have gotten a chance to work. From where I sit, about to retire, it’s hard not to see that move from freelance office worker to university teacher as giving me the opportunity to be more radical, to prove if I could practice what I preached.
The truths are in the pudding.