Ways of reading

Conversing about books with a colleague recently, I began to reflect on how readers of literature read. The topic had come up earlier in the day when several students came in for tutoring on literary-analysis papers. In addition, a student in the Education program was devising a curriculum for third-graders; the lesson focus was about “different ways of reading.” I have always loved to read, and I never spent much time considering how I go about it. It just seemed natural to me…and then I encountered academia’s approach to reading and had to reconsider the way I devoured fiction.

My coworker consumes novels the way a literature professor does. He savors passages, re-reads earlier chapters in a novel to find connections with later parts of the book, and looks up references and allusions to be sure he understands the deep context of a literary text. He asks himself questions about what he’s reading. The questions keep him reading and engaged with the words on the page.

That method is how I read poetry. But it is not how I read novels or non-fiction books; those I read at a clip, almost inhaling them, seldom stopping. I read them for pleasure, for fun–I even absorb sad novels and memoirs this way, in a mad whirl of reading enjoyment, caught up in the events and characters and setting of the book in my hands. This is not to say I never look up words, places, references, but generally I do so after I have finished the book. I guess I examine such things in retrospect.

brad-hammonds-flikr-books

brad-hammonds-flikr-books.jpeg

The downside of reading fiction using my own “natural” method is that I tend to come away from a book with a strong sense of whether it was wonderfully-written or moving or amazing, but I cannot explain why it has that effect–how the author managed to get me to  believe in the characters or the world she created with her words alone. When I am reading for fun or information, however, there isn’t any need for analytical levels of cognition. If I forget a detail, I can go back and look for it later. Or forget about it. No great loss.

There are other methods of reading–certainly more than two ways to “get into” a book! The conversation about reading strategies (what feels natural to a literature-consumer, how readers savor a good book, questioning not just the text but also the self reading the words) piques my interest. I suspect some connection with consciousness and cognition, aspects of human-ness I have mulled about in previous posts.

Well, enough for now. I am signing off–to read a good book!

Poetry & backstory

My primary interests on this site are consciousness, nature, philosophy, the arts, and poetry in particular. Recently, poetry has been taking a backseat to other concerns; but poetry has a way of constantly asserting itself into my consciousness–of whatever that may consist (see previous posts for wrestling with that concept).

I have been reading poetry but not writing about it much and not composing at a productive clip, though I am not feeling “writer’s block.” I have, instead, allowed other events in my life to take over space formerly reserved for writing poems. This is neither bad nor good–it is just the state of affairs at present. Recently, a discussion with a friend brought up an aspect of poetry-writing that I have not spent much time thinking about; and the reason I haven’t is probably because I was warned away from the practice long ago when I first began to write verse.

The practice is “explaining the poem.” Of course, in theory the poem should do its own explaining, and if it requires too much prose telling, then it ought to be fiction or memoir or history or something other than a poem. That’s what my mentors and teachers imparted to me about poetry (all hail received wisdom!), and I do not disagree with this tenet–but having taught classes that introduce people to poetry, let me add a few cautions and qualifiers.

See, there’s explaining, and there’s explaining. One version of explaining the poem is to tell what inspired you, how you started to write it, what you were aiming for in terms of purpose, what you intended to “do” in the poem, and what each of the references means as relates to your life, the nation, culture, religion, or a love affair. If that is what the poet does before reading the poem aloud or presenting it upon the page, then the poet is doing all of the poem’s work for it. Too much information.

If the audience does not understand or appreciate the poem without this sort of explanation, then you have either a failed poem or a failed audience.

Then there are forms of interpretation and analysis by critics, reviewers, or fans; these texts or discussions can be immensely interesting and fruitful but do not involve the poet him or herself, so they do not really qualify as “explanations.” This process is what we try to teach students to do in university literary analysis coursework. Sometimes we encounter lackluster or lazy audiences in the classroom: people who want the professor or the textbook to do all the work of understanding poems for them. Poems are complex, like polymer molecules or neurological wiring. Not easy to explain.

But there are explanations of a kind that can be valuable, even if they are fabishop lowell ltrsr from necessary when one encounters a really terrific poem. There are reasons to learn the backstory of a poem, if such a thing exists for that particular poem (not all poems have one). Anyway, it may be worth asking the poet about it, if she is still living and can answer or if the answer may be deduced from archival materials. We have learned the backstories of a few Elizabeth Bishop poems, just taking one well-known poet as an example (see Words in Air); the stories–in this case, letters–do not necessarily help readers interpret a poem or even understand it any better, but the stories remind us that the poem was initially embodied in the brain of another human being who was undergoing and observing experiences–or leaping into realms of imagination.

More about why that’s a good thing, and more about the embodiment of the human brain, in later posts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Be critical, and sing”

pompeiian woman-writer

The poet C. D. Wright died in January of this year. She was an American original. She was a critical thinker of the first order, an experimenter.

For no apparent reason, I thought of her when I saw this fresco painting (unearthed in Pompeii) of a woman with a stylus and book. Something in the thoughtful musing look in this portrait suggested a critical eye, analysis, consideration–a keen and penetrating intelligence. She will reflect before she writes, but she has opinions she  is not afraid to share.

A collection of Wright’s pronouncements, which she combined and arranged in a sort of extended prose poem, was published as “69 Hidebound Opinions.” The hidebound is both tongue-in-cheek and earnest; typical, really, of Wright’s work. I’ll post the link and also share a few that I find intriguing.

“69 Hidebound Opinions” by C. D. Wright.

Here’s #22:

“To opt to be a poet, is to have some resolve. It leaves you free–to sing as you will, with the lungs god gave you–even if no one but god might hear. It leaves you that naked and obligated to sing your best. Suzuki teaches that ‘in the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.’ Beginner’s mind then, is not only where you start, but where you must remain. It is what will keep you–long after you have children, job, house, dog, too many keys on your ring–free.”

Number 27:

“An atmosphere of depression will arouse artists’ attention over an atmosphere of prosperity nearly every time. Because it derives from consciousness, art is critical. Also true, ruins are beautiful to us; the Blues make us feel good; it is through the wound that we perceive the body whole.”

Yet, #42 says, “It is left to the poets to point out the shining particulars in our blunted lives like the strands of blue lights Cotter, Arkansas, draped every haunting Christmas from one empty storefront to the empty storefront across the street for eight unoccupied blocks.”

Number 41 resonates deeply: “It is poetry that remarks on the barely perceptible disappearances from our world such as that of the sleeping porch or the root cellar. And poetry that notes the barely perceptible appearances.”

An aside: [I want to write about the sleeping porch, which I loved in my early childhood and which hardly exists anymore. I’d like to sleep on one again, build a house that has a sleeping porch. Also, my joy at discovering my former neighbor had–and used–a root cellar; his joy at discovering the young person new to the neighborhood was fervent about her truck patch.]

“53

Poetry is the language of intensity. Because we are going to die, an expression of intensity is a necessity.

Extended awareness, isn’t that central to the art?”

No. 67–

“Gradually one comes to fathom exactly what it is one has chosen–what is poetry. Poetry avails itself of the listener, the watcher. Whether called upon to emancipate, comfort or forecast, poetry responds. The possibility that the poem you were born to write, will not join you on the porch this summer or the next, looms taller than the sunflowers and the hollyhocks. It could have taken the fork to the river or ended up at the slaughterhouse. It could have died as quietly as the moth on the screen. Or just borne itself up on the breeze. Who can say. This is the poet’s choice: to attend a presence no one else was aware of, to spend the better part of a lifetime preparing for an arrival, that could not occur but for her attention, that would not in fact otherwise make its blaze on this world.”

waterpaper

 

I close with #51: “Now that I am beyond the initial paralysis of calling one’s first teachings into question, I am left with: be critical and sing.”

 

Resilience & interpretation

I know many of the readers who follow this blog are not citizens of the United States. Perhaps you have been hearing about the contenders for our upcoming presidential election and feeling some dismay. Perhaps you are particularly concerned about calls for identifying citizens based upon their ethnic background and religious choice.

If so, I assure you that there is push-back here from people who recognize that persons such as Mr. Trump embarrass the nation. It appalls us to see a person who feels he can ignore the U.S. Constitution running for the presidential office simply because he has money and recognition…although the free and open laws of the country permit him to proceed.

Trump’s proposal to identify some of our citizens by creed or heritage violates the Constitution in several ways. It violates Amendment One’s provisions for freedom of religious expression, and Amendment Four, the right to privacy; and the section of Amendment Five that relates to being held answerable to a crime and deprived of liberties without due process of law; also, Amendment Fourteen Section 1. Many, many U.S. citizens know that such proposals are merely rabble-rousing slander and could not be enacted without completely controverting the Constitution. These people are not wealthy entertainers, and they do not make the news, but they exist and–with any luck–they will vote.

A person running for the highest office in his country should know its laws thoroughly, but nothing in our Constitution says he (or she) must. We citizens are to blame, as clearly many of us are not terribly familiar with the laws of the United States of America, either. U.S. citizens should become more aware of our responsibility to learn about the Constitution, the importance of the vote, and the need to be rational thinkers when we go to the polls. Our democracy’s founding documents were drafted by people who earnestly, if perhaps idealistically, believed that human beings are capable of rational decision-making.

Granted, they also thought they were granting voting rights to property-owning men. The Constitution has been altered over time; it is a resilient, flexible, and enduring piece of prose that’s been the source of frequent interpretation.USConstitution From a literary standpoint, resilience and interpretation are what keep “classics” alive and relevant as works of art, though close readers can also use context, history, and speculation about original intent to examine a piece of writing they love and respect.

I have no idea of how I will vote next November. But I do know I will consider, more than personal values, the values of the nation under whose laws I currently reside. I’m reminded of the wisdom-teachings of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew–

He said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.” Matt. 22:21

The people listening to Jesus went away “amazed” (Matt. 22:22). There is something ambiguous in that response that speaks to me today, something worth meditating upon, something worth interpreting.

~

Supportive critique

One discipline that keeps me practicing as a poet is ongoing, regular discussion of new work. It has been my great good fortune to be part of a critique group that has been meeting monthly for, I believe, over 20 years! Our participants have come and gone a bit; the group consists of four long-time stalwarts and up to three others. We try to keep to under seven members or the discussions get too lengthy for one evening.

When one has participated in a group like this for a long time, the occasional issue of expected responses comes up. At least, it does for me. When I choose a poem to workshop with my critique group, I might say to myself, “X prefers more narrative poems…Q will think this too wordy…Z will probably correct the dangling modifier…”

If I begin to expect certain stereotyped reactions, one could ask, why bother being part of a group with the same people in it all the time? Would it be more helpful to scout around for novel feedback?

Actually, no. While I am sometimes correct in my expectations of a group member’s initial feedback (and I am often wrong!), the discussions that evolve from that point onward prove tremendously useful. What I learn and can use as inspiration to revise tends to arise from other group members’ questions, challenges, and misreadings; unexpected revision ideas appear during brainstorming, and bouncing the ideas off of others helps me recognize that the poem must communicate or die.

These are good things which nourish the creative impulse.

When we do take on a new member, we fear that he or she may be a bit shocked by our frankness with one another: after 20 years, there’s not quite as much need to dance politely around a poem that isn’t doing its job. But those who settle in with us see that we practice non-defensive openness and that we always find genuine things to praise. Our group purpose is to assist one another in writing the best work we can. That means analysis and criticism, but it also means encouragement and generosity of spirit. It offers us exchange of accomplishments, prompts, book suggestions, setbacks, joys, and sorrows (there have been more than a few).

It may be a small community, but it is a community. And my fellow participants are as supportive as any community I have been part of these past two decades. They take our writing commitment seriously, recognizing that critique is just another step in the process and that dissenting ideas can get us toward brilliance. Once in awhile.

Online workshops

For the month of October, I participated in an online poetry workshop with Daisy Fried (see this post). I enjoyed the workshop and gained a great deal from it; I wish I had had a little more time to put into the writing, however. As is often the case, “life intervened” and I did not find quite as much creative writing time in the month as I had hoped.

Then again, all writers have to juggle. Life intervenes, always. How dedicated are we to making art? We have to ask ourselves that now and then. If distractions too readily remove us from the genuine work, maybe we’re dilettantes. On the other hand, not all of us choose to devote 100% of ourselves to the work. That does not make us less serious about the hours it takes to compose art.

One thing I learned from the online workshop experience is that, with the right participants (our group seemed well-chosen), you can get to know one anothers’ work and topic concerns fairly quickly, and even glean things about personality, cultural background, and literary influences of the people in the group. This may be more true for writers than for other artists, perhaps, as writers are experienced at…well, writing…which is how the critique and feedback exchanges operate on these forums (via comments). The exchanges were interesting and useful because the perspectives varied greatly; and instead of talking together in a room real-time, and perhaps feeling inhibited by face-to-face shyness or fear of interrupting one another, the participants had time to write our thoughts and think a bit before posting feedback.

The downside of an online workshop, for me, mostly entails the quantity of on-screen reading necessary for full participation. I suppose I could have printed the lectures and comments, but that seemed a waste of paper and was not simple because of the Blogger-framework, the format of which does not play well with my printer defaults. Ah, technology! How I love and hate it! And the beauty of a face-to-face workshop is the beauty of human beings, faces, flesh, vocal tones, body language, gesture–subtleties lost in a virtual forum. When I was enrolled in my MFA program at Goddard, the intensity of the low-residency on-campus workshops and lectures were crucial (and irreplaceable).

Nonetheless, I found the workshop online this past month to be a valuable learning experience that expanded my thinking about poems and narrative, about revision and experimentation, and about the various modes of teaching or critiquing. I recognized, for example, how much preparation Daisy had to do to organize a one-month online workshop, how much organization, and how much thought as to purpose and guidance and feedback, let alone figuring out which low-cost method to employ to deliver the lecture, set the context, and permit easy and rapid feedback on the part of both teacher and students. Not an easy task, and she did a yeoman’s job of it. One thing I deeply appreciated was Fried’s devotion to the value of deep revision rather than just to tweaking the draft. I had forgotten how I used to wildly and almost randomly revise drafts “just to see” what might happen if I made radical changes. Often I would return to the earlier draft with renewed focus, and sometimes the radical revision took the poems to much more interesting places. These days, when I have less time to mull and experiment, I tend to stay on the safe side and take fewer risks with revision. Risk is worth it, though. I need to get back to that approach.

All in all, a positive workshop experience, and one which yielded a couple of poems worth revising and some poetry colleagues whose work I like and whose feedback I value and may tap in future (who knows?). Without leaving home.

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The poet & the Good

I have recently finished reading Robert Archambeau‘s collection of essays The Poet Resigns and am mulling over the idea of resigning with him.

It’s not that I necessarily want to give up writing poetry but that, in my reflections about where I can do the most good among the community of sentient beings, my work as tutor and teacher almost certainly has an effect both deeper and broader than my work as poet. This “good” hearkens to the ancient Good of Socrates, Plato, and their ilk but also to the sense of mindful “middle way” of the Tao: a practical path between two values that may be incompatible in many ways.

~

water-rites_coverThe readership for contemporary poetry is small, and my readers number only in the hundreds; among those readers, resonance of any kind–aesthetic, emotional, lyrical–is likely to be limited to a small number of poems. A poem of mine that effects some measure of The Good upon readers represents a minuscule good moving into the world. The net effect, I imagine, hardly registers…not that net effect matters so much. I suppose if a poem of mine moves just one person enough to evince even a small transformation, something has been achieved beyond my individual abilities in the composition of that particular piece.

As a teacher and tutor for the past ten years, my role expands not merely to number of people encountered (few of whom will remember me as an individual) but to the concepts I present to them, most of which will be significant in their lives one way or another–although not immediately, and probably unconsciously. Lately I have been devoting more of my limited energies to this aspect of my life work. Such focus does impede my ability to do creative work of other sorts.

~

This bust resides in the Louvre, and was found here: http://www.humanjourney.us/greece3.html

This bust resides in the Louvre, and was found here: http://www.humanjourney.us/greece3.html

Example: I am reading a little book on philosophy for beginners by Thomas Nagel. The Nagel book is on my table because I have been trying to find simpler ways to talk with students about their philosophy essays. While my main enterprise as writing tutor is to help students to clarify and correct their mechanical weaknesses (sentence and paper structures), it is not always possible to ignore content weaknesses; a student can write correctly about nothing of value–and receive a D or, in the case of Philosophy classes especially, an F.

But understanding philosophy is important.

Now, it is often extremely difficult for beginning writers to express their understanding of philosophical concepts in writing. They are just learning rhetoric and fall into fallacy errors through grammar as often as through thinking. Since I am not supposed to be a content tutor, I have to find ways to tease out what the student understands (or does not understand) and make that idea come through clearly on the page.

Kind of like mind-reading.

[Aside: I have to admit this can take a lot out of me by the end of the day.]

The Nagel book is one of several philosophy primers I have been reviewing to try to find a text to which I can refer my more confused students, the ones who cannot infer the basics from their professors’ lectures or assigned readings. There are academics who might suggest such students do not belong in college in the first place; but I believe in the ideal of an educated populace, and whether or not these students stay in the university through graduation, they can benefit from the discipline of thinking about thinking.

It feels rewarding when, after half an hour of discussion and writing coaching, a young person leaves my office slightly more enlightened. So they tell me, anyway. I know from experience that writing about something helps a person to understand not only the subject but, more importantly, what the writer thinks about the subject.

~

So perhaps my creative energy is better served in the direction of others through tutoring than through poetry; perhaps the former leans more toward the Good. Perhaps I am a better tutor than poet; this is indeed likely, although I have been poet-ing longer than I have been teaching. Then again, not to knock the art of teaching, but writing poetry is much more difficult than the teaching I do. And I get paid to enlighten people through my tutoring.

Not so through poetry. Indeed, Mr. Archambeau–you have gotten me seriously to think about tendering my resignation as a poet, though not without considerably more reflection on the possibility. Writing about the idea has helped me to understand where the Good fits into all of this, and what the middle way might be.

Now, I suppose I could write a poem about the subject…

~

Gopnik enters the English major fray

The New Yorker‘s columnist Adam Gopnik contributes his views about why the English major does or doesn’t matter in the blog accompanying a recent issue. He says, in response to apologists (like me) who contend that English, literature, and the humanities generally contribute to a person’s life experience in subtle, long-term ways:

Well, a humanities major may make an obvious contribution to everyone’s welfare. But the truth is that for every broadly humane, technological-minded guy who contributed one new gadget to our prosperity there are six narrow, on-the-spectrum techno-obsessives who contributed twenty.

Then he points out:

Nor do humanities specialists, let alone English majors, seem to be particularly humane or thoughtful or open-minded people, as the alternative better-people defense insists. No one was better read than the English upper classes who, a hundred years ago, blundered into the catastrophe of the Great War. (They wrote good poetry about it, the ones who survived anyway.) Victorian factory owners read Dickens, but it didn’t make Victorian factories nicer. (What made them nicer was people who read Dickens and Mill and then petitioned Parliament.)

Okay, he’s a bit broad and snarky there–but that’s his style. And nonetheless, Gopnik argues for space in society–if not necessarily in the academy–for the study and discussion and obsession with books and literature. He claims that “the best answer I have ever heard from a literature professor for studying literature came from a wise post-structuralist critic” who said the reason he was a literature professor was because he had “an obsessive relationship with texts.”

I would agree with that reasoning, though I am not a post-structuralist, so far as I know.

I believe that education ought to allow us to follow our passions to whatever logical or surprising ends appear. In light of the huge expense of a university education in the USA, however, perhaps the best question to ask is how to motivate citizens to pursue education individually (see my post on autodidacts). Gopnik calls the estimable Dr. Johnson “the greatest English professor who ever lived,” though he never taught in a university and though his title of “doctor” was honorary, and reminds us that other antecedent writers-on-literature, such as Hazlitt and Sydney Smith, “had to make their living doing something else narrowly related.” Colleges at least offer some employment and a modicum of respect to the humanist interpreters and researchers among us, but we need not be employed by the academy to exercise our obsession with books. That can be done on our own.

Dr. Johnson

Gopnik adds this lovely, wise sentence near the close of his column, and I wish I could convey the value of his idea to every college student I advise: “You choose a major, or a life, not because you see its purpose, which tends to shimmer out of sight like an oasis, but because you like its objects.”

Poems, stories, paintings, sculpture, dance, philosophy, books, books, books…I don’t know my life’s purpose, but I know the “objects” that entrance me.

Discourse: talking about poetry

This post is a response to Fox Chase Review‘s post which can be found here: Poetry in Decline?

“G” asked for responses to the need for a revolution in (USA) poetry, stemming from Diane Sahms-Guarnieri’s comments. Her ideas were excerpted, so I may be missing some of her assertions or evidence. In one way, she echoes Dana Gioia’s famous “Can Poetry Matter?” essay and book (1992): that is, in terms of questioning the isolated, academic support of poetry, poetry study, MFAs, and university publishers as elitist and as dampening a wider audience for poetry. While Gioia tends to support the literary canon in general, he stresses in his early essay that poetry has its own specialized, “frenzied” little circle of literary lights but that the art itself no longer exerts much influence on life, culture, and thinking in the USA.

From Gioia’s introduction:

The situation has become a paradox, a Zen riddle of cultural sociology. Over the past half century, as American poetry’s specialist audience has steadily expanded, its general readership has declined. Moreover, the engines that have driven poetry’s institutional success—the explosion of academic writing programs, the proliferation of subsidized magazines and presses, the emergence of a creative-writing career track, and the migration of American literary culture to the university—have unwittingly contributed to its disappearance from public view.

Sahms-Guarnieri further suggests that isolated, academic styles of poetry are partially to blame for poetry’s “decline” among US readers and calls for a return to realism.

I’m not sure “realism” is the answer, because many infusions of style, energy, or revolution that have done poetry good as a whole have not exactly fallen into that category (was Lorca a realist? just as one example). I embrace the idea of the narrative-lyric mode, which may be considered a kind of realism; but I also love many, many other styles of poetry, some of which are “difficult” and not easily accessible to the general reader. The main means through which I learned the diverse structures and approaches to poetry is through reading on my own, autodidact that I am. Yet formal study and literary criticism increased and deepened my passion for this art. I teeter on the fringe of academia though I am a poet who writes outside of the classic academic framework.

I feel compelled to defend the teaching of poetry, though I admit the process is often done badly. Still, one of the things academia does best is to examine the work, and I feel readers who examine what they love more closely will benefit from doing so (rather than taking the “I know what I like” stance). Academics have, since the 1970s, begun seriously to read beyond “the canon,” and that is all to the good. Academia doesn’t produce the best art, however. Knowing how things work in theory does not equal expertise. I know how a bicycle works, but I am pretty sure I couldn’t build one from scratch.

~

The poems that remain timeless are seldom elitist. The problem with the elite is that it eventually falls from grace. When that occurs, the allusions and puns and, often, the entire foundation of the piece get lost. This issue can be equally true of poems that are “realistic.” If the poem offers no recognizable aesthetic, purpose, or sensation, it ceases to be valuable to future readers. Many of today’s poems will suffer this fate–mine among them–and that’s not a bad thing. We don’t get to judge which art is revolutionary, prescient, timeless; later generations make those judgments.

And that is one reason many writers resent academia and university presses: it seems as though these institutions are “at the top of the mountain” and trying to keep their situations exclusive; in other words, they are acting as cultural, literary judges. So they are…in their time. They cannot enshrine themselves for the future. Art doesn’t work that way.

~

Contemporary Poetry Review claims it is there to resuscitate contemporary poetry, which implies poetry’s suffering a near-death experience. I do not think poetry is dying. I think it is changing, which it has always done, because art is responsive to and entangled with culture and therefore defies stasis.

Poetry, like most art, tends to exist on the cultural fringe, where it hangs out with curious, inventive people who bother to seek for it. Some of them look on the mountain top, and some of them look online, or in pubs that host open mics, or at independent bookstores, long may they thrive. With luck, and maybe some encouragement, those people might buy a book or two–including POD-published or self-published books (why not? –and while you’re at it, Water-Rites is still available!). This last point coincides somewhat with Larry Robins’ perspective in the Fox Chase Review piece.

If you really do know what you like, regardless of how you make that judgment, buy a copy of the book. And don’t get it second-hand from Amazon if you can help it–buy from the small press or the author or an indie book shop if you can find one in your area. Read it again and again, and figure out why you like it. Tell someone else. Discuss what you love.

That’s what keeps poetry alive.

water-rites_cover

Comparison as analysis

April may be the cruelest month, may be the time of cherry blossoms hung with snow, may be the time to celebrate poetry–as if we could confine it to one month, those of us who love it–anyway, it is also the last full month of the spring college semester. After endeavoring to impart some understanding of the principles of literary analysis of poetry to my students for the past ten weeks, I assigned a short paper that taught me a great deal. Perhaps it taught my students something, as well.

It occurred to me that metaphor–indeed, most figures of speech–are based upon likenesses, direct or analogous or implied. Yet we Western thinkers are taught to observe differences first and foremost. We learn that red is different from blue, that a ball is different from a block; and I am not disputing those differences. When we speak metaphorically, however, we imply similarity instead. My students default to contrast for analysis and to similarity for description.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with that; it’s very Aristotelian. But what if we turn things 180 degrees? Think of Linnaeus, who classified so many plants and animals; he grouped life forms according to likeness. The differences branched off from the similarities. He described what was overtly or subtly similar, then analyzed for differentiation.

Any two poems have at least a few things in common, so I asked my students to do a comparison-only study, briefly, in a 2-page paper. Initially, they had a great deal of trouble with the assignment. They wanted to contrast. Their interests lay in what was noticeably different about each poem. They genuinely struggled to stay on the topic of similarity, but the outcomes were some of the best papers I have yet had from this class. A student told me that this exercise “really made me think.” Yin-Yang

Fascinating response, really. What does it tell us about our brains, our education, our observational instincts, that we want to stress difference before similarity? Is this a Western civilization thing, or an in-our-DNA-thing? I wonder.

The process that makes a person think, though, is a learning process for certain. Once we can recognize similarities between disparate works of art, we can perhaps recognize similarities between philosophies, religions, human beings. The very differences may become beautiful or intriguing rather than frightening or alien. We may learn to become more comfortable with variety, and more appreciative of it. I know my reading life would be much the poorer if I refused to read, try to understand, or value novels or poems that seemed challengingly “other.” I do not love all of the work I read, but everything teaches me something.

The poems below are very different. In what ways, specifically, are they alike?

Spleen (by Charles Baudelaire, tr. by Robert Lowell)

I’m the king of a rain country, rich
but sterile, young but with an old wolf’s itch,
one who escapes Fenelon’s apologues,
and kills the day in boredom with his dogs;
nothing cheers him, darts, tennis, falconry,
his people dying by the balcony;
the bawdry of the pet hermaphrodite
no longer gets him through a single night;
his bed of fleur-de-lys becomes a tomb;
even the ladies of the court, for whom
all kings are beautiful, cannot put on
shameful enough dresses for this skeleton;
the scholar who makes his gold cannot invent
washes to cleanse the poisoned element;
even in baths of blood, Rome’s legacy,
our tyrants’ solace in senility,
he cannot warm up his shot corpse, whose food
is syrup-green Lethean ooze, not blood.

~ ~
Arrival (by William Carlos Williams)

And yet one arrives somehow,
finds himself loosening the hooks of
her dress
in a strange bedroom–
feels the autumn
dropping its silk and linen leaves
about her ankles.
The tawdry veined body emerges
twisted upon itself
like a winter wind . . . !

~

(These poems are shared under the Creative Commons and are copyrighted by the estates and/or publishers of these poets)