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Friday, October 9, 2015

Viva voce (manifesto 5)

Research is attested to in writing. Yet teaching is quintessentially oral. The living presence of the voice is what matters. I spoke at my Friend Ken Irby's memorial service today. I started out by saying that the world was a less literate place without Ken, a gifted and acclaimed poet and teacher. This literacy, though, (I continued) was transmitted to me orally rather than in writing. In Ken's teaching, in his conversation, it was a particular mastery of cadence and intonation that carried the day. I said that I couldn't imagine him trying to convey information through a power-point slide (laughter). Later someone told me they couldn't even imagine him knowing how to work power-point at all. I can't imagine him working from lecture notes. Of course, he was a professor of poetry and of Shakespeare and Melville, of sonorous words. It is not accidental that he taught beat and black mountain poetry. He himself is perhaps one of the last poets directly involved with this kind of poetics.

This does not exclude the love of the written work. He would bring many books to martini night to show us, and had a keen appreciation of a book in its physical form. In his teaching I'm sure he brought in the physical text to consult as well. (I found myself yesterday in the engineering building, a third of a mile from my office, about to teach a class but without a copy of the novel we were reading. I still did fine, even referring to specific words and passages. Essentially I was teaching naked, though clothed in suit and tie,)

Some students complained about a lack of linearity in Irby's teaching: his was an aggregation of evocations rather than a straightforward account. Others figured out that they could learn more from Irby than from almost any else, since he had read more and knew more. He is the only person I have ever known that knew more about jazz than I do. Devoted students of his call themselves the company, or members of the company, perhaps using the word that Creeley used in a similar tenor.

You should be able to teach viva voce. If you need specific formats for information, such as tables of statistics, in your field, that's fine. In poetry we depend on the written text too, and typographical details of the text can be extremely significant. But you shouldn't have to look at notes to be able to teach something that you know well.

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