This Week In My Classes: Love Poems and Social Novels

In English 1000, we’ve started our first poetry unit. We’ll be doing more poetry after Christmas, organized into what I hope will be provocative thematic clusters, but for now we’re just working through the basics of reading and analyzing poetry — meter and scansion, figurative language, poetic forms and modes. We haven’t really talked much about specific poems yet, since I’ve been using the assigned ones mostly to teach vocabulary for poetic devices, but on Wednesday we’re reading a little group of love poems and I hope to open things up a bit more than I have been doing so far. I haven’t quite decided how, though. The poems are Anne Bradstreet’s “To My Dear and Loving Husband,” EBB’s “How do I love thee,” and Shakespeare’s “Let Me Not to the Marriage of True Minds.” I guess some talk about sonnet form is probably appropriate, and about EBB’s appropriation of the conventions of love sonnets for a woman’s voice. Maybe we’ll get a bit silly and play Poetry Survivor: set up some standards for a great love poem and then vote one off the island out of the anthology as the weakest of the three. All this talk about metrical variation and synecdoche has probably made them afraid to react viscerally to a poem! The challenge, an exercise like that might show them, is to channel that gut reaction into an energetic analysis of the actual poetry.

In English 2040, it’s hard-boiled detective fiction time. Every year I swear I’ll dump The Maltese Falcon for The Big Sleep and I never do. But the thing is, first of all, that I really do think The Maltese Falcon is brilliant, and it teaches so well, by which I mean it brings up so many of the themes we’re interested in across all of our readings. Also, and this is not incidental, I have been working with it for a while and feel pretty confident talking about it. Even just considering how convoluted the plots of these novels are, that’s no small thing! Still, I’m sure The Big Sleep is just as brilliant in its own style. Maybe next year, since it looks like I’ll be teaching this class yet again…which is fine, as I really do enjoy it. I just find it kind of funny that the class I have offered most often in the last decade is this one, because it gets bums in seats (83 bums this year, to be precise).

Most fun this week is working on South Riding in the Somerville seminar. The students are very engaged, especially now that we’re past the initially disorienting ‘getting to know all the characters’ phase. We had a lively discussion today about the variable points of view in the novel and how they affect our understanding of the community and also our sympathies. One idea we considered is that the constantly shifting perspective makes it hard for us to arrive at moral judgments about the characters: just when we think we condemn their choices or actions, we are brought to see them in a different context. And yet there seem to be exceptions to this, people whose points of view show off their faults or limits. Alderman Snaith attracted the most attention. He seems clearly set up to be the bad guy, but it was pointed out that he isn’t really after anything so different from what everyone else wants (money, power, success)–he’s just smarmier about it. Also, he is indifferent to suffering caused by his pursuit of his own interests. Holtby has given him a back story that seems calculated to awaken our sympathy: it seems that he was abused or raped as a child by “evil men” and he’s been left “a psychological cripple for life,”  feeling only horror at “all thoughts of mating and procreation.” We haven’t really worked out how this particular trauma fits into the larger themes of the novel, or even into the overall portrayal of his character, but we were noticing other scenes or intimations of sexual violence and the destructive potential of sexual desire, from the death of Mrs. Holly in childbirth to the suggestion that Robert Carne raped his wife (the word he uses is “forced”). It’s a novel full of the rhythms and forces of the natural world, but it’s hardly a pastoral idyll: perhaps this is a way of showing that human life, despite the best efforts of civilization, is driven by the same powerful urges. One implication would be that reform (social, political, educational) is both urgently needed and inevitably futile. Sarah Burton’s idealism can make us want to stand up and cheer. “We’ve got to have courage, to take our future into our own hands,” she declaims to Mrs. Beddows. “If the law is oppressive, we must change the law. If tradition is obstructive, we must break tradition. If the system is unjust, we must reform the system.” But Mrs. Beddowss has “seen compassion impotent and effort wasted”; she reflects on the parade of miseries she has seen, on illness and suffering and injustice all brought on “by circumstances which neither courage nor intelligence could have altered.” Sarah dreams of “the gradual reduction of the areas ruled by chance,” but so far the novel has not filled its readers with optimism that such transformation is possible. Perhaps the novel is a lesson in lowering expectations. As Alderman Astell, the once-idealistic socialist, remarks to Sarah, “You begin by thinking in terms of world-revolution and end by learning to be pleased with a sewage farm.”

This Week in My Classes: Poems and Prelates

And we’re underway! It’s still a bit chaotic (cue rant about Pet Peeve #47, the long class add-drop period, which sends students the message that they can join a 12-week course 2 weeks in and expect not to be behind) but most of the students seem to have made it back from the break (PP #53, why don’t they just come back for the first day of term?) and even if they haven’t, it seems reasonable to start acting as if they have, including holding them accountable for catching up to us. Though this makes me sound cranky, I’m actually feeling pretty perky today, mostly because I enjoy being back in the classroom and I’m pretty keen about the material we’re working on in both of my classes.

In Close Reading, we’re working through some basic elements of poetic analysis: last week, we talked about diction; today, I reviewed major types of figurative language; and Wednesday and Friday we’ll focus on scansion. In theory, this is review for most students, but in practice, especially since we have muddied diluted diversified our core curriculum and program requirements so much, there’s no guarantee they will have spent time on it. And if they have, there’s no guarantee, of course, that they will have retained, much less mastered, it. So I really do focus on the basics. The immediate goal is to grasp what the elements are–to be able to recognize and name them. But this in itself is not much of an objective, and especially because this is an upper-level course, I try hard to emphasize that the real goal is to be able to talk better about poetry, to be able to recognize what’s going on in a poem when we read it, to be as precise as we can about its effects. In the handout I prepared for them, I quoted this excerpt from a good book called Poetic Designs:

No one reads the rules for the game of … hockey for pleasure; yet no one can possibly understand the game without knowing the meaning of ‘icing the puck’ or ‘offside.’  Without this understanding, the game is a meaningless blur.  Only with it does the game begin to ‘make sense.’  But prosody, like the rules of hockey, is not simply a body of information that one learns and then ‘applies.’  The truly informed fan sees the offside happen before the whistle blows, experiences it in the stir of action.  In poetry as in sport, the observer’s eyes—and ears—must be educated to this same point of instinctive understanding.

Yes, I had some hope that the hockey analogy would appeal to a room full of Canadian 20-somethings! But the same principle applies to, say, quilting: if you know what the norms and standards and challenges are, you can appreciate “the achieve of, the mastery of the thing” when you see it, not just at an analytic level, but “in the stir of action.” If you don’t know much about it, you might like it just fine, and you might have a strong personal response to it, but you couldn’t appreciate it in the same way you could if you had that “instinctive understanding” that combines knowledge and excitement, insight and affect. One of our first readings was Frost’s “Design,” for instance. It’s a deceptively simple poem; it adds to my appreciation of its deceptive simplicity that I see how regular the first line is–that sing-song rhythm leads us along as if into a harmless nursery rhyme–and then find my poetic innocence betrayed by the irregularities that follow. I’m not a hard-core poetry expert, and I sometimes think that helps in this particular class: we’re not going after the most obscure or complex levels of analysis, just practicing how to develop and support our reading. We’re trying to understand how we know what we think we know about our readings, as well as why they have the effects and meanings they do.

In 19th-Century Fiction, today was our first day on Barchester Towers. I took pretty much the whole time myself, with some introductory framing comments about Trollope and his aesthetic, and then an explanation of the basic hierarchy and social significance of the Church of England in the mid-Victorian period. About Trollope, I noted the ways his rather literal novels resist ideas about what is literary, being neither difficult nor particularly poetic. He was never really the go-to novelist for the fancier kinds of literary theory, not yielding as well to symbolic, psychoanalytic, or deconstructive approaches. But he has proved amenable particularly to ethical criticism (as with Ruth ap Roberts’s nicely titled The Moral Trollope). I talked about his interest in institutions, not just the church in the Barsetshire novels but the law and government in the Palliser series, and about his exploration of the interaction between institutions–which have their own abstract logic and their larger missions and priorities–and the individuals who actually constitute those institutions. That’s the point at which some explanation of the Church of England becomes essential, from the general, such as the extent to which it is always already a political institution (not to mention a social and educational one), to the particular–such as what it means for the position of Warden to be ‘in the Bishop’s gift’ or why the impending change of government matters so much to the novel’s very opening question, who will be the new Bishop of Barchester? I always feel a bit bad when I talk so much, but then, it’s pretty hard to navigate intelligently in Barchester Towers without knowing something about these matters. Once you get the idea, you can be “in the stir of action” as you read it. Next time we will get into the novel itself, and into class discussion, starting (as you always must and should, in Trollope) with people: we’ll talk about Archdeacon Grantly, Mr Slope, and Mr Harding to start with, I think, sorting out what they stand for and what the larger implications are of the antagonisms among them.

I really hope that the students are finding Barchester Towers amusing. How could they not? There’s the brilliant comedy of Mrs Proudie’s reception, for instance, at which Signora Neroni’s sofa strips the Bishop’s haughtily arrogant wife of her finery, and there’s the constant entertainment of Trollope’s narrator, who really comes into his own here, after warming up so charmingly with The Warden: “And now, had I the pen of a mighty poet, would I sing in epic verse the noble wrath of the archdeacon.” Good heavens!