by Daniel Morris

Daniel Morris: Tom,  As I read your critically mature book, Reading Poetry with College of University Students: Overcoming Barriers and Deepening Engagement (Bloomsbury Academic, 2022), I was thinking about how you could have framed your study in different ways to appeal to different audiences.  For example, since you display an impressive grasp of a wide range of approaches to poetry, you could have donned your “theorist” hat, and directed your book to readers interested in exploring the relationships between various critical theories and reading contemporary poetry.   I say this because you do such a good job engaging with Stanley Fish’s idea of “interpretive communities,” suggesting that it is possible, and desirable, to move among and between various communities in coming to terms with ambivalent, and often contradictory, poems.   Elsewhere, you make a strong case that Derridean deconstructive strategies can help readers perceive, and trouble, hierarchical relationships between characters in poems that focus on, for example, an analyst and an analysand, such as Julia Alvarez’s “The Therapist.”  You turn to postcolonial theory and ecocritical modes in intriguing ways to discuss A.K. Ramanujan’s “Death and the New Citizen,” a poem that enumerates how to use corpses and how to dispose of them.  Queer theories of assimilation, difference, gender, and non-binary identity inform your readings of Timothy Liu’s “The Prodigal Son Writes Home” and Trace Peterson’s “Trans Figures.”   You work with Eve Sedgwick’s notion of “reparative reading” to read Denise Duhamel’s “Egg Rolls.”  Alternatively, you could have written a book that makes a case for how and why older, perhaps less fashionable, formalist, aesthetic, and myth critical approaches to reading poetry still matter today.  Relying on formalism, but often combining that way of reading with historicism, you explore not just “what” a poem means, but also “how” a poem means through the decisions a poet makes about syntax, grammar, lineation, meter, tropes, figures, allusion, and adherence to traditional stanza patterns or modes such as the praise poem, as you show Gwendolyn Brooks doing in a tribute to Langston Hughes.   A third option could have been for you to appeal to a general readership by simply collecting a book’s worth of your stellar readings of individual poems, a project similar to one Stephanie Burt undertook in The Poem Is You: 60 Contemporary American Poems and How to Read Them (2016).

You could have positioned your study in these and other ways, but you didn’t.  Instead, you decided to focus on poetry and pedagogy.  Your task was to help teachers do better with helping students read poetry.  Given that you are yourself an accomplished poet and critic, would you reflect on your decision to write a book from the perspective of your position as a teacher whose task it is to help other teachers work with poetry in the undergraduate classroom?  Why did you imagine this aspect of your identity, that of instructor,  and this audience – classroom teachers – as the dialogic participants for this conversation about poetry at this point in your life?

Thomas Fink: I haven’t had a solid new idea for a book of poetic criticism since my last one in 2001, though I published quite a few articles and reviews before deciding to focus mostly on interviewing poets about five years ago. During the previous decade, I kept looking at my published work to see if there was a “thesis” or cluster of interacting “theses” that would bring the essays together into a book. No luck. When it came time for me to apply for a sabbatical from LaGuardia Community College of the City University of New York, where I’ve taught since 1981, I decided that, since I’d heard over the years from quite a number of colleagues who were obviously extremely good at teaching fiction, drama, and critical theory that they found teaching poetry difficult, I would address that issue in an article.

My sabbatical spanned from September 2020 to August 2021, and I got a head start over the summer. By October, after doing substantial research, “prewriting,” and outlining, I realized that this wasn’t going to be an article; I had three interrelated articles that, topped off by an integrative conclusion, would be enough for a modestly sized book, and perhaps I could get a rough draft two of those articles (chapters) done by the time I returned to teaching. This was in the thick of the pandemic. During that time, on average I left my home once or twice a week and traveled minimally. It gave me great pleasure to do research for this project and write many hours a day; I’d never gotten quite as much joy from just writing about poetry or theory in the other ways that you so aptly describe. Perhaps I felt that pedagogical writing would be of greater practical use. In any case, because I had a sabbatical during the relative isolation of the pandemic, I finished a draft of the book by mid-summer 2021. I even enjoyed making mostly stylistic changes prior to submitting the book for Bloomsbury’s consideration at the beginning of Spring 2021.

Morris: In your response to my first prompt, you mention that you have taught at LaGuardia for over forty years.  For this prompt, I’d like you to narrow your focus a little more than you do in your book, by discussing the specific opportunities you experience for “deepening engagement” with students at LaGuardia, as well, possibly, as some of the barriers you try to overcome in teaching poetry at LaGuardia.  Your college is located in Queens, which you mention in your discussion of Paolo Javier’s poem “Feeling Its Actual” is “one of the United States’ most ethnically and racially diverse areas” (43).  Reading your discussion of Javier – who, I learned, is “originally from the Philippines” and has served as “Poet Laureate of his current home borough, Queens” (43) — I found myself thinking that addressing what you call the difficulty of “syntactic deviation” poetry such as Javier’s may be of special importance when working with students for whom English is a Second Language.  In your discussion of unconventional English usage in Javier’s “Feeling Its Actual,” for example, you emphasize the immigrant speaker’s “emotional authenticity” as well as “self-reproach” over linguistic “errors” (43).  As you observe in your discussion of syntax in “Feeling Its Actual,” “Having the makeshift adverb ‘concedingly’ modify the verb ‘can be’ suggests that the speaker chooses to behave provisionally in response to a particular context rather than to succumb permanently to pessimism” (46).  Would you agree with me that your analysis of “Feeling Its Actual” may serve as a “reparative reading” for some of your LaGuardia students who, like Javier’s speaker, may be made to feel ashamed of language usages that, in truth, represent “imaginative constructions of meaning” (43)?  

Fink: Our student population at LaGuardia is extremely heterogeneous, and I hesitate to make large generalizations. In my composition and literature classes, I’d estimate that between 20% and 70% of the students might indicate that English is not their first language. (This semester, one student characterized English as her fourth language.) And some others may have grown up bilingual. But within the population who have a different first language than English, there are students who received rigorous instruction in English grammar and syntax in their native land and thus have conventional usage and only occasional idiomatic lapses, as opposed to those who report speaking and writing very grammatically in their native tongue but find the grammatical and syntactic move from that language to English difficult. Still others suggest that they are not particularly in control of grammar and syntax in their native language, as well as American English.If memory serves, when I taught Javier’s poem about seven eight years ago, I had a large number of native English speakers. For most of them, Javier’s poem did seem to enhance their respect for what non-native speakers go through and their ability to produce “imaginative constructions of meaning.” Though I don’t remember any saying so, I imagine that the analysis of “Feeling Its Actual” and poems like it does serve as a “reparative reading” for some former-ESL students, and this often has something to do with the affective process of identification, though that might occur in the first contact with the poem, prior to interpretation. On the other hand, other students may find the affirmation to be found in the poem superfluous. Why? Proud of their primary language and culture, they take its primacy in their life as a matter of course; some may even find the acquisition of standard English skills a nuisance, irrelevant to the particular career goals that comprise their reason for going to college. A student might even interpret the poem as evidence of that perspective, regardless of what a “majority opinion” in the class is.

When I teach Louise Bennett’s dialect poetry, students of Jamaican origins frequently enjoy their position as “guide” or “native informant” to their non-Jamaican colleagues and professor. For some, reading a poem like “Colonization in Reverse” may indeed be reparative, especially if they have experienced culture clashes or discrimination in NYC. The non-Jamaican students tend to find the process of understanding the dialect elements either delightful and intriguing or burdensome.

Morris: I’m writing my third prompt to you on the afternoon of November 8,  2022, midterm election day in the United States.  I don’t know how the results to this election cycle will turn out, but it is not breaking news to say that few observers would regard current American political discourse as featuring the qualities of nuance, ambivalence, and ambiguity that, you demonstrate, teachers encourage students to regard as admirable features of poetry. 

Political advertisements and remarks by candidates in debates traffic in misleading “sound bite” versions of opponents’ positions on what are inevitably complex issues. Turning political discussion into a game of “gotcha,” it is considered a mortal sin if a politician has changed her mind about an issue.  The context in which an opposing candidate had once cast a vote or made a claim is rarely taken into account when the meaning of the vote or claim is taken up in the new context of a debate or in an attack ad.

It strikes me that the model you advocate for how to read, write about, and discuss poetry in the classroom might serve as a usable model for how I, for one, wish political discourse were treated in the public square.  In contrast to the cherry picking aspect of political sound bites, for example, you discourage readers of even such a controversial poem as Amiri Baraka’s “Somebody Blew Up America” from engaging in “contextual synecdoche,” that is, from acting “as though a relatively small part of the text is its essence, and this allows them to draw a frame around the entire text and ignore counterevidence” (137).  At another place in the conclusion to your book, you advocate for students to offer provisional, partial, and suggestive readings of poems, and to avoid the goal of attempting to offer an airtight one hundred percent correct analysis of a poem.  You write,  “After a thorough discussion of a text, various members of an intellectual community often will not reach consensus, yet an attitude of dialogic openness and a desire to enhance whatever understanding is possible is far preferable to the use of conversation to serve egotistical bids for dominance. When students address interpretive differences rooted in ideological disagreement, they can do so in an atmosphere devoid of ad hominem and ad feminam offensives.” (138).  Your book does not overemphasize the theme of poetry and politics, but would you care to comment on how your recommendations for how to approach poetry in the classroom could serve as a model for how citizens might engage with political discourse?     

Fink:  I’m writing my reply to you the night after the midterm elections, and I interpret the results so far as an encouraging rejection, for the most part, of MAGA extremism.

Your analogy is wonderful! Why can’t a flexible, open approach to poetry interpretation provide a sense of how political interpretation can be lifted out of the mud— or better yet, a tar pit like LaBrea in LA? Supersubtle modulations of phrasing in some literary criticism only partly disguise polarizing rhetoric and even knee-jerk emotionalism that is so egregiously on the surface in U.S. political life. An organization called Common Ground stages dialogues and makes them accessible as podcasts in order to explore how those with divergent ideologies can find ways to transcend gridlock, the kind that’s plagued Congress for decades, to solve pressing problems. As these conversations indicate, a precondition for the realization of areas of agreement between those with seemingly irreconcilable positions would be engagement in the process of reading an “other’s” tenets, reasoning, tropes, and examples, with more than the sole picture of total victory in a debate. Openness to whatever might be found, including an area of compromise, however provisional, is required.

In the case of Baraka’s “Somebody Blew Up America,” it may be tough for some readers with particular subject positions to settle down to the kind of open reading that we’re talking about, because of the poem’s emotionally charged, declamatory style and a few assertions of wrongdoing that may not be verifiable. However, this is precisely what I think they should do. And if they do, there’s a chance they’ll see that Baraka is not being anti-Jewish but trying, among other things, to challenge the equation of Jews and Israel. In fact, anti-Zionist Orthodox Jews would agree with him on this one point.

Morris:  Tom,  I’d like to ask you to reflect on student resistance to difficult poetry.  I ask because, as you mention in your book, innovative poet-critic Hank Lazer has noted that “today’s ‘multitasking’ millennial and post-millennial student are already acclimated” to “an open encounter with collage-poetry,” and yet students may struggle with poems that “lack a single, immediately discernible frame” (25).  Given that students, as you point out, “enjoy collage effects in other media than poetry,” can you hone in on why students tend to resist poems that lack a conventional narrative structure and autobiographically inflected lyric speaker (26)?  I believe your response may move our conversation in the direction of reflecting on the problem of situating poetry in the classroom, and on student expectations that the poetry presented in the classroom must be comprehended in a conventional sense of that term, but I’d like to hear your views on the matter.

Fink: Some members of my literature classes have understood and appreciated the connection between collage-poetry and collage-effects in other media and are ready to do the kind of close reading that accounts for big thematic shifts. Ashbery’s short poems sometimes elicit this kind of response. On the other hand many students enjoy collage effects in other media because they can relax, skate lightly on surfaces, and engage in what Tan Lin calls “ambient reading”; they don’t feel the pressure of paying acute attention to each part or ponder the relation of parts to whole. But when they’re in a college course and know that they have to write an essay on a poem, these readers don’t perceive the poem as something to enjoy or a source of relaxation. They often presume that this essay must have a thesis, and all the body paragraphs of poetic interpretation have to support this thesis or build up to it. If the poetic text is disjunctive and hence seems to present a severe barrier to thesis-building and, hence, essay completion, then the students can get annoyed and frustrated. How does my explanation of these two different tendencies jibe with your experience of teaching rather disjunctive poetry at Purdue?

Morris:  I currently use a textbook by Susan Holbrook that includes a first chapter entitled, “What Makes Poetry Poetry and Why Are We So Afraid of It?”  The chapter features Holbrook’s experience of teaching “Blues” (1966) by Canadian experimentalist bpNichol. 

As you can see (and I mean see, because this poem is as much a visual/graphic experience as it is a text to read), “Blues” is a literary riff on Robert Indiana’s legendary series of “Love” sculptures and paintings that originated in 1964.  Never mentioning the musical form of the blues, or the color, or the melancholic state, the poem consists of four lower-case letters splayed across a white space eight times, forwards and backwards.  As we start our unit on poetry with this text in a general education course I regularly teach to first year STEM students at Purdue, my goal is to help students realize they are not alone if they feel uncomfortable speaking in public about difficult texts.  To facilitate class discussion, I ask students to address questions such as the following prompts based on comments Holbrook makes about the poem in her opening chapter:

Chapter one:  Introduction: What Makes Poetry Poetry and Why Are We So Afraid of It?

  1. Why do you think a student  in Holbrook’s class called bpNichol’s poem “Blues” an example of “Avant-Garde Toilet Paper”? 
  2. According to Holbrook, “How does  poetic language differ from the language of prose?”
  3. In what way is language in poetry like a “stained glass window”?
  4. Thinking about the example of “Blues,” what is Holbrook getting at when she says “meaning [in poetry] is shaped in multiple ways by its medium”? 
  5. In relation to “Blues,” why do you think Holbrook brings up the fact that the word “poet”  has roots in ancient words that meant “to make” or “to build”?
  6. Poets often like to put forward words that convey multiple meanings and associations.  Name three associations or meanings for the word fragment, “evol”.
  7. With “Blues” in mind, why do you think Holbrook urges poetry readers not to “feel pressure to reduce the poem to a simple summarizing sentence”?
  8. Why do you think Holbrook says “Blues” is a “meditation on love, but also on language itself” ?
  9. Why do you think Holbrook considers you, the reader of the poem, to be “the most important piece” of puzzle in determining what a poem means?  Do you agree with Holbrook?

When dealing with “difficult” poems, I find that students appreciate having specific, but open ended, prompts that enable them to develop their own responses to specific aspects of the “difficult” poem.  I would add here that one of the things I enjoy doing in class when addressing “Blues” is to use the poem as an opportunity to introduce related art forms and cultural movements.  Relying on resources available on Youtube, I show clips about blues music, Duchampian readymades, the meaning of “avant-garde,” and on Robert Indiana’s Love sculptures.

Tom, my comments above about teaching “Blues” in a general education program for STEM majors at Purdue lead me to my next prompts: Given the neoliberal world of contemporary academia today, how do we make a case that helping students find pleasure in poetry matters?  You address this issue in chapter two, “Emotional Enticements and Aversions,” but I wonder if you could reflect here on how you try to encourage students to embrace the multiple pleasures of reading, talking about, and writing about poetry, while at the same time making the case to other stakeholders such as administrators, trustees, and tuition paying parents and guardians that what we do in the poetry classroom has vocational significance in developing “soft skills” and “critical thinking”?

Fink: Dan, your questions for the STEM students provide a useful set of contexts for entering a meaningful analysis of Nichol’s poem and for discouraging an (old—by now, ancient!) New Critical approach. As for Holbrook calling the poem “a meditation on love” and “language,” I think that really stretches the term “meditation.” If she said that “Blues” occasions the reader’s meditation, I could accept that.

You are undoubtedly highly aware of this already, but I’ll talk about a recent trend for the benefit of members of our audience who don’t teach in literature departments. On their websites, numerous English departments throughout the U.S. are currently making a solid case to both students and “administrators, trustees, and tuition paying parents and guardians” that English majors, contrary to superficial journalistic soundbites, consistently get good jobs in a variety of fields (other than teaching). The departmental statements tend to attribute this to how employers recognize the very “‘soft skills’ and ‘critical thinking’” that you mention in job seekers who are English graduates. The caveat is that English majors also need to take courses outside the field— such as in the domain of computer technology— that will show prospective employers that they can combine “hard” and “soft” skills to provide “value” for a company. In addition, because of what they learn in our courses that sharpens their communication skills and ability to understand and solve complex problems, our majors tend to have staying power and the opportunity to advance in ways that allow them make increasingly decent salaries, even if STEM majors frequently have higher starting salaries.

College and university websites promoting the benefits of the English major are referring to the study of literature in general rather than the study of poetry. That’s appropriate. I would remind those faculty who tend to valorize concentration on the other genres and tacitly marginalize poetry that lyric poetry’s relative economy of scale— and even long (epic or anti-epic) poems tend to be shorter than novels— provides significant pedagogical benefits. Critical thinking involves a continual vacillation between scrutiny of details and consideration of larger cognitive structures. When this is practiced on a rather short text, the interpreter can focus on a greater quantity of details in relation to the text as a whole and does not have to engage in as much synecdoche: closely citing and reading some parts of the text and ignoring other, equally potentially salient parts. In that sense, critical thinking relies less on arbitrary selection that, in some way, diminishes criticality.

In the last four pages of my Conclusion, I concentrate fully on how the reading and analysis of poetry develops interpretive abilities and flexible patterns of thought and action that reflect many of the attributes that English department websites foreground to show students that the major can lead to a rewarding career. Rather than repeating those points here, I’ll just circle back to your question about the relevance of openness toward multiple interpretations to the U.S. political arena and my affirmation of the connection that you see. If this kind of ability to entertain multiple perspectives fully, to avoid rushing into rigid postures, and to articulate complexities is germane to our national political life, it’s also valuable in guiding thought and behavior in commerce, the law, medicine, and arts and entertainment in general.

Morris: Tom, Some of my previous questions have focused on students and student learning, but I’d like to focus now on what it takes for you to prepare for and to carry out a successful course involving poetry analysis.  Your book demonstrates your dedication to teaching.  For example, here is a passage that describes the steps you take to help students who may get “carried away with external historical, political, or sociological evidence” when writing about a poem (68):

I attempt to set clear, precise guidelines for the first draft of an essay so that these kinds of things do not happen.  And if the guidelines do not sink in, specific comments on the first graded draft about areas in which the student needs to demonstrate how the poem communicates (rather that just what it communicates) can help the writer compose an effective revision.  These comments can be reinforced in a conference.” (68)

As I read that passage, I was struck by how time consuming your process must be as you interact from your response to a first draft, to conference, to revision of first draft, to your response to their final draft.  I don’t know what your course enrollments are or how many sections you teach each semester, but you must be spending a lot of your work days responding to student writing about poems.  Your preparation for class discussion also suggests immense attention to detail:

In group work and class discussion that take place in a literature course, I find that, aside from eliciting students’ interpretive conjectures, it is often beneficial to expose them to various components of others’ interpretations and rationales for them – including implicit and explicit interpretive frames. (If no one has published criticism on the poem, I devise alternative readings.) (71 ).

Your analysis of critical perspectives on W.B. Yeats’ “A Prayer for My Daughter” ranging from hard line critique of patriarchy to one that reads a stanza as a “temporary endorsement of female spiritual empowerments” (81) to a reading that emphasizes Yeats’ interest in Hindu symbolism illustrates how you present critical views so that students can see the poem as a “busy ‘thoroughfare’ that reflects the daunting complexity of Yeats’ influences, pressures, ideas, and modes of persuasion that get in each other’s way” (84).

You have been teaching for over four decades, and your book makes clear that your work with students remains a central task for you.  How do you stay inspired? Can you discuss how you integrate your preparation for teaching poetry with other aspects of your life as a critic, poet, artist, and your other obligations as a professor?  

Fink: The process can be demanding but isn’t as insanely time consuming as it may seem from the passages you cite. There is a cap of 28 students in Writing through Literature and the same in Introduction to Poetry. (For various reasons, a few students never show up or withdraw from a course by mid-semester.) I teach 24 hours of courses per year spread over two twelve-week terms and one six-week term; depending on how many hours each week a class is, that could be 7 or 8 classes. There are three high stakes assignments in the Writing through Literature course. It doesn’t take a lot of time to read and provide feedback on the brief low stakes assignments (that involve some aspect of high stakes ones). The first draft does receive a lot of commentary, but conferencing can occur either in class during group work or designated office hours, and students have the option not to revise the first draft if it is passing. Many don’t, so the first draft is the final one.

As for preparation for class discussion in Writing through Literature and Introduction to Poetry, I don’t do exhaustive and exhausting research on more than one poem in the former course and a handful in the latter. Sometimes, preparation consists of re-reading a poem twice or thrice and making a few scribbles, and often, that suffices, because one is drawing on years of thinking about poetry and poets. And I tend to do the fullest kind of research for teaching at times when I’m not teaching—well before the actual course in which the poem will be covered takes place. During the summer months, I often prepare syllabi and course schedules for the majority of classes I’ll be teaching in the following year, and the rest gets down during other down time.

I’ve just emphasized these points about how preparation doesn’t have to be excessively burdensome, because one way to stay inspired is not to overwork. For example, insisting that every student revise every paper is not good for the faculty member, and it’s not pedagogically sound for students whose first draft is strong and those who may have a good deal to improve but are juggling a lot of other responsibilities and are just going to make “cosmetic” revisions. Further, I try to be very organized in accomplishing my “other obligations as a professor” so that I don’t take more time on them than they require. Another way of staying inspired is to find the middle ground between two extremes: each semester, I try to make sure I teach a substantial amount of literature that I’ve never taught before and some work that I taught a few years earlier or even a long time ago. The first approach keeps everything fresh, while the second enables me to find dimensions of the work (and, for research papers, criticism on the text) that I hadn’t noticed in the previous classroom interpretation and wouldn’t have noticed if I’d taught it the previous term. The excitement of the poetry itself, the temporal unfolding of consensus, dissensus, and oscillation in the process of dialogue about a poem, and individual students’ manifestation of eureka moments continue to motivate me.

The most obvious way to stay inspired is to notice and strengthen connections between different realms of activity. When I put a lot of effort and thought into something like the orchestration of competing critical claims about Yeats’s “A Prayer for My Daughter,” I know it will eventually have (at least) an indirect impact on some facet of a problem that I pursue in criticism and even find its way into a poem—either through the play of language or some thematic fragment. When I teach poets who are new to me, their work may show the way to trying something in my own poetry that I had never considered. And my poetic or artistic practice sometimes leads me to questions that particular poems promise to answer, and so I decide to teach those poems.


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