This Week In My Classes: Poetry and Prose

That was a busy week! Not only was it the first full week of term, with both classes and committee meetings, but I was involved in a Ph.D. comprehensive exam, which is something we usually do when classes aren’t in session. Obviously it’s the student who has the biggest job, but the committee has to read the written papers and prepare questions for the oral exam. Happily, it went well (congratulations, Laura!), and next week things should settle into more of a routine.

howe-close-readingIn Close Reading I always start with poetry, partly because it’s just easier to model and practice mining details for meaning when working with shorter, denser texts. Even in Middlemarch (don’t tell anyone I said this!) there are places it’s probably okay not to scrutinize every word, but a sonnet such as Robert Frost’s “Design” demands our unrelenting attention. I reviewed some key terminology on Monday, and then Wednesday and Friday were all about scansion, something think is not just vital (who can talk well about poetry without considering rhythm?) but kind of fun. However, despite my best efforts, I am almost never able to convince the majority of my students that it is anything but aggravating: the stress was palpable in both tutorials on Friday!

One of the problems, of course, is that while there are things you can do wrong, there isn’t just one right result: you need to use your ear and your judgment (which in turn relies on your understanding of the whole poem, including both form and themes). As far as possible, I try to shore up their confidence by proposing methodical steps to follow: be sure you are pronouncing words correctly; mark in stressed and unstressed syllables first where you do not have any choice (it’s never spi-DER, it’s always SPI-der); at least initially, assume little words aren’t strong beats but nouns are; wait until you’ve done several lines before deciding what pattern you see, because good poets like rhythmic variation. Ultimately, though, you do have to rise to the occasion of the poem itself and make some decisions about how you think it is best read. Sometimes a poem steers you towards a more regular (and thus possibly more artificial “poetic”) rhythm, with a strong predictable beat that isn’t necessarily how you would “naturally” speak its sentences (Poe’s “The Raven,” to me at least, works this way), while other times a poem demands to be read dramatically.

donnepoemsI almost always end up using lines from Donne’s Holy Sonnet X (“Death, Be Not Proud”) to illustrate just how interesting, important, and even exciting scanning poetry can be. For one thing, it’s a poem that quickly teaches you not to read it in anything like mechanical iambic pentameter: “Death, BE not PROUD, though SOME have CALLed THEE / mighTY and DREADful, FOR thou ART not SO”? You wouldn’t. You mustn’t. And not just because that’s not how you pronounce “mighty.” You’re standing up to Death! At the very least, you have to call him out in that first syllable: “DEATH, BE not PROUD.” You might even do four stresses in a row — “DEATH, BE NOT PROUD” — or maybe that’s too much. I’m tempted to do “for THOU ART NOT SO” as well, but my reading of the poem may be more confrontational than others would like. At any rate, you have to say it as if you mean it, which makes scanning the poem actually quite a profound exercise:

In The Victorian ‘Woman Question’ we read Frances Power Cobbe’s 1868 essay “Criminals, Idiots, Women, and Minors,” a powerful attack on the irrational and unjust laws governing married women’s property, along with Margaret Oliphant’s 1858 essay “The Condition of Women,” in which she wonders why women are complaining so much (we agreed that “don’t young men have it pretty tough too, with all their college degrees but no clear vocation?” is not her most compelling argument!). And we read J. S. Mill’s The Subjection of Women (1869), which of course is a classic text in the development of liberal feminism. It is always interesting to see how strikingly modern it can sound (on this reread, I was particularly interested in Mill’s discussion of unearned male privilege and its deleterious moral effects) even as it betrays its Victorianism in other moments (for instance, in Mill’s comments that left to themselves, women will almost certainly still end up choosing marriage and motherhood over other options, and that the domestic arrangements of the household make pretty good sense as they are).

My main goal with these early readings is to start us off with a sense of some of the Victorian debates about women, including idealistic notions of their angelic influence and delicate sensibilities (with all the pit-and-pedestal consequences of that view) as well as contrary views and arguments for their rights and abilities. This lets us put the arguments we’ll encounter in our novels and poems, which are often put less directly — dramatized rather than theorized — into their contemporary contexts. Next week it’s Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, for example, which will show (among other things) that the idea of women’s influence is just that, an idea, one that means very little compared to the overt power of a man determined to have his own way.

One thought on “This Week In My Classes: Poetry and Prose

  1. NCT September 24, 2016 / 9:36 pm

    Thank you for a very diverting post. I also loved the rhythm of poetry but resisted scansion until I got to graduate school. I don’t really understand why I resisted it, but I am glad that I discovered the joys of it. Double Dactyls are fun to use as a demonstration of the three syllabic foot.


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