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Wednesday, March 8, 2017


This book will instruct you on many things that you can do with poetry that do not involve textual analysis. It differs, then, from other textbooks of poetry that propose nuanced close reading as their almost exclusive goal. While I by no means disdain this sort of attention to the poetic art, I would like to propose an alternate approach that begins by purposely removing it from the picture. The justifcation for such a conspicuous omission is that the prominence of analysis in the academic study of poetry (and what other kind is there, you might ask?) has led to a distortion that ends up alienating potential readers as well as marginalizing poetry as an arcane subject within academia itself. What happens when we approach poetry without the aim of dissecting it? We are about to find out.     
Other art forms might require specialized instruction for their full “appreciation,” but only with poetry do we demand that technical expertise come first. Imagine demanding that students who have never listened to music perform complex harmonic analysis—an activity that often seems sterile and forbidding even to otherwise dedicated musical performers. Such students would be right to resent a seemingly pointless exercise. A more fruitful approach would acknowledge that many listeners have no desire to learn to read music or learn a specialized technical vocabulary.         
Textbooks of poetic analysis are designed to teach the student how to take apart the poem as an object on the page. The New Criticism, a movement that took hold of English departments in the middle years of the past century, produced a long string of such books, beginning with Cleanth Brooks’s and Robert Penn Warren’s Understanding Poetry. Others include John Ciardi’s How Does a Poem Mean?, John Frederick Nims’s Western Wind, X. J. Kennedy’s An Introduction to Poetry, and Lawrence Perrine’s Sound and Sense. Helen Vendler’s Poems, Poets, Poetry is the most recent addition to this genre by a major academic critic. Although the New Criticism itself might be passé, its legacy lives on in practices of analysis embodied by these textbooks and by the courses in which they are still used. At its best, this pedagogy teaches the student sensitivity to the subtleties of poetic tone and rhythm, the variability of speaking subjects, and the complexities of metaphorical language. At its worst, though, I have found that the goal of some pedagogy in this tradition is the identification of rhyme schemes and the memorization of the names of rhetorical figures.  
In contemporary literary criticism, the analysis of texts has an ambivalent status. In some contexts it appears, at least, to be highly esteemed, yet in practice it often ends up being dull, plodding, or perfunctory. It is common to say, in book reviews for example, that the textual analyses are sensitively handled, but that the critic has not been able to put them to good use in promoting a more compelling thesis. Nobody is fooled by such faint praise. Close reading, when it is not very deep, can seem vaguely high-schoolish, even when the practitioner is a university professor.      
There is something to admire in the legacy of New Critical pedagogy, and I could attempt to write another textbook along those lines. Like other academics I believe myself to be an expert analyst, and I have my own ideas about how to go about the process. Although it remains a significant skill in some, limited contexts, I believe that the best way of approaching it is to come back to it after exploring other, less analytical approaches. I have seen students, even promising graduate students, struggle to find something meaningful at all to say about a poem. The problem seems to be that the methods of analysis have become stale through over-familiarity. Students who don’t know why they should care about analyzing a text are likely to produce observations that are relevant to any larger context or concern. 
My idea, then, has been to produce an anti-textbook, designed as a counterweight to the less felicitous side effects of New Critical styles of “close reading.” The close ties between the New Criticism and the so-called “academic poetry” of this period continues to narrow the range poetry considered in textbooks, to the detriment of experimental alternatives. While New Criticism was allegedly “formalist,” it neglected prosody or dealt with it inadequately. As a corollary, the performance of poetry almost never appears in this pedagogy, which emphasized the poem as a static object on the page. 
Also absent from the New Critical legacy is a larger sense of the varied uses of poetry outside the classroom: people write poems for their lovers; they use poetry as part of their spiritual practices; they set it to music and sing it; they memorize and recite it; they incorporate iit into works of calligraphy or other forms of visual art. These practices typically do not depends on training in specifically academic modes of textual analysis—a practice that is rather beside the point for people cannot see any use for poetry in the first place. Imagine teaching music theory to people who had almost never heard music with any real pleasure, who had never played or sung it, danced along to it. The technical details of this theory, after all, can seem barren even to dedicated musicians.

In the academic context, understanding poetry has often meant understanding the meanings of poems, or being able to justify a given interpretation through detailed analysis of poetic techniques. It is telling that in the college classroom reading has often become a synomym for interpretation. The word reading, though, encompasses a potentially wider range of response. For me, understanding poetry is more like understanding music: being able to follow along and enjoy what is happening, understanding why someone would think a song or composition makes sense or adds up to something larger (or doesn’t), understanding the roles that music plays in everyday life, from dancing to meditation.


Phaedrus said...

Splendid, Jonathan.

Jonathan said...


Anonymous said...

This is engrossing. I want to keep reading. And it's absolutely true that teaching poetry often degenerates into memorizing lists of rhetorical devices. It kills the joy.

Thomas said...

Inspiring! In my book, I want to do for prose writing what you are here doing for the reading of poetry. It's not the rules that matter, but the "things that you can do" with it.

Leslie B. said...

This is going to be a great book. I say it will be a game-changing book.

Jonathan said...

The four people who read my blog approve. That's nice. (Others may read but only five or six I'm actually aware of.)