Wednesday, 3 November 2010

How We Read

I got my first-year English students to read "I Know a Man" by Robert Creeley.

We got into a good-natured scrap.  I resisted readings of "drunk driver" or "drug runners" or "fugitives"; they resisted my apparent refusal to go beyond the sense of dis-ease, confusion, meaninglessness of the speaker as conveyed by linebreaks and other elements.  "Yes, but what is the reason for the meaninglessness," they said.  This went on for a while.

Next class, having been dissatisfied with our discussion, I proposed two vessels, each containing poem.  With the first, we attack with our analytical devices, closing in on the poem, pinning it down.  I drew a lid of this vessel, with arrows pointing in.  The second vessel remained lidless, a bunch of arrows spilling out, accompanied by question marks.  With this vessel, I claimed, we tease the poem open and let it stay that way.  So with "I Know a Man", I went on, let's settle for the questions, without stretching for the answers.

"But what kind of world is filled with confusion and questions," they said.

"Exactly!" I [may have bellowed].  "The world of the poem!  The world "surrounded by darkness"!  Sounds quite a bit like life to me."

"That's an interpretation!" they cried.  "How come you can say that and we can't say it's a drug deal gone bad or a couple of drunks out for a joyride!"

We had smiles on our faces, most of us in the room.  I mumbled something about, well, you're adults, you can do what you want, but on an essay or a final exam you'd better be able to make a case that your reading comes from THE LANGUAGE OF THE POEM and so on.  "We will," they said.  "No worries."

Then I got the best idea yet.  "You know," I said, "I'd prefer a poem like this any day to some poem you can read once and understand forever.  "Tell you what.  Let's turn to the first the war poem listed on that essay assignment.  Let's see which one you prefer."  We read "Arms and the Boy".

Not a bad little poem, I said to myself, after we talked about it a while.  An informal survey: Do you prefer this poem or the Creeley?  Results: Inconclusive.



Tom said...

Could it not be said that any reading of the poet's seeming drunkeness ALSO speaks to his desperately vague way of contending with the darkness around us? Without dismissing any particular interpretation of what could be causing it, it seems to me that the particular context of Creeley's "confusion" is secondary, and that it is the relatively shapeless "darkness" around us--both the cause of and reason for an inebriation of some type--that is the point.

The speaker's potential inebriation or lawlessness is both quite clearly suggested - SOMETHING is affecting the diction - and, I would say, perfectly vague...we can't know what the darkness is, and so our attempts to contend with it are equally ineffective and vague.

Regardless, I definitely like Creeley more.

Gerald Hill said...

Yes, attempts to contend with, as you say, aren't as interesting to me as that with which they would contend.

Pearl said...

I don't get Creeley's. I'm 0 for however many of his now. Same with Spicer. I get a blank and not an appealing one. Seems like dadaism trying to posture to be badass. (shrug) I'm not the ideal audience.

"Nor antlers through the thickness of his curls" is appealing tho.

Gerald Hill said...

Thanks, Pearl. Blasting through On the Road for another class, I'm inclined to take the Creeley as a moment out the window.