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Friday, March 10, 2017

part of the preface

When students only have read a few poems, in exclusively academic contexts, they often approach poetry with what the linguist Geoffrey Pullum (in a different context) has called “nervous cluelessness.” According to Pullum, educated native speakers of English are often so intimidated by misunderstood rules of prescriptive grammar in books like The Elements of Style that they longer trusts their own intuitions about their native language, ending up with “a vague unease instead of a sense of mastery” (Pullum). We hear of students uncertain about their ability to scan a line of poetry because they don’t know which syllables are accented—even though they can speak their native language with infallible accentuation (Ferris). Students who know they are not expert readers read tentatively—unsure, even, of their own basic ability to understand the literal sense of words on the page. They have learned in High School that the denotations of words will be misleading, that the real meaning of the poem is concealed behind a largely irrelevant fa├žade of literal meaning. As a consequence they will sometimes ignore the plain sense completely, even if it is the shortest path to understanding the poem. Since poetry will form a very small part of their education, many students will suffer through a few weeks of poetry analysis before moving on to the more familiar terrain of the novel. Even some English and foreign language professors, with minimal training in poetry themselves, bequeath attitudes of nervous cluelessness to subsquent generations of students.


Anonymous said...

"Even some English and foreign language professors, with minimal training in poetry themselves, bequeath attitudes of nervous cluelessness to subsquent generations of students."

- I have started teaching poetry, and yes, absolutely, I recognize myself in this. When I was a student, poetry was taught like something to get through in order to get through the really interesting stuff, which was all in prose. I'm very excited about the poems I'm teaching right now. I chose them for the class because I love them. Nobody is making me teach them. But somehow I'm not managing to transmit this excitement in the same way that I do when I teach prose. I end up with pedestrian, plodding readings that bore me before boring the students. I think what I miss is some basic techniques of how to approach a poem with students.

Sorry for the rant but this is something that preoccupies me a lot at this point.

Jonathan said...

That's why I'm writing the book. Even my teaching of poetry is sometimes like that.

Vance Maverick said...

I've been making song settings from poems, which means I have to make detailed decisions about stress. I've found this challenging, though I think I'm reasonably competent in reading English poetry (and am a native speaker). The most frequent hangup is little words that could be either unstressed or weakly stressed. This makes me realize that in silent reading, I leave these stresses undecided, as if one of the possible stress levels was "?". If I read the line aloud, I make a choice on the fly, but composition is not improvisation.

Example: "That my low stone may neatly say". Stress on "my" or "low"?

I wonder whether a poetry class would have taught me to make firmer decisions.

Jonathan said...

Probably not the way poetry is usually taught.

I'd put the stone on the 1 of a measure and have the first three syllables be 8th note triplets leading up to that on beat 4 of the previous measure, for example. If you think in natural sounding musical phrases the words should fit. When I do song settings I would have secondary stresses relatively weak.

Jonathan said...

Put another: you are ok as long as you don't put a weakly stressed word on a strong musical stress. I would create a phrase like this:

"She is as in a FIELD / a silken TENT."

The secondary accents of the line are IS and SILK. Those can be either accented or not, musically, but you wouldn't linger over them, would you?

Vance Maverick said...

Thinking this over it seems almost any distortion or overemphasis could be made to work musically. Yes, making 'she' a sixteenth-note pickup to a fortissimo whole-note 'is' would be bathetic, but there are settings that work with that level of absurdity (Renard). The musical stress can cut subtly or crassly against the text.

I won't set "that my low" as a triplet (not wanting to make "that" first among equals there) but I bet you could make it work.

The inherent scansion of the line is another, prior question. And maybe "inherent" is slightly misleading here too. In this case it isn't clear till you read the second line how strong the grid is. "At midday when a sunny summer breeze" -- ah, the cradle is rocking, and there must have been a suppressed stress on 'is'.

Jonathan said...

I assume it's easy to set something unnaturally just by going against your instincts, though making that work well is another question. For more natural fits I would suggest speaking a phrase, then simply singing it in that rhythm, more or less, to an arbitrary melodic arc. That gives a kind of template that you can then adjust rhythmically. You could do simple quarter notes like this:

That my low / stone may neatly / play 2 3 4

Then you have the words my, stone, neat and play on the one and three. It depends stylistically, too, what you are going for? Johnny Mercer? Renaissance madrigal? Folk song?

Vance Maverick said...

More folk song than anything. Here's a fragment with two lines showing what I mean.