55º ~ on our way up to 70s for the next three days with stormy weather in the offing, for now the sun fights the gray, the breezes stir but do not rage, the rain holds off for a few more hours
How do you read poetry? This is an earnest question, as most of mine are.
Many of you know that I started teaching at the graduate level this past semester (for the low-residency program at the University of Arkansas Monticello). I taught a course in contemporary American poetry, assigning poets from the 1960s through today, and while teaching that course many things surprised me (for example, the vehemence with which several students took offense to Ginsberg). However, nothing surprised me more than how my students read the poems at the beginning of the semester.
As the courses in this low-res program are conducted online using the Blackboard LMS, I created weekly discussion boards where each student posted a response to one of the poets for that week, using one--three specific poems from our selection to illustrate the student's response in terms of poetic elements used by the poet and how the poet fit into American poetry (or didn't). I also required that each poet appear on the board before a student could repeat, which meant that sometimes, a student had to post about a poet with whom he/she might not be completely attuned.
After the first week of discussion, it became clear to me that my students were reading the poems in a completely different way than I intended, and this had everything to do with technology.
To go back in time to the late 80s and early 90s when I was an undergrad, for the most part, all we had was the poem on the page and a dictionary by our side. We were taught to read, at least at St. Ben's/St. John's, by reading out loud, by annotating (yes, writing in our books!), by looking up definitions and allusions, and by formulating our own personal response to the poem on the page. This, then, is how I've read poems ever since.
You see, back in the bad old days, we did not have the vast resources of the internet. To research a poet and/or a poem meant a trip to the library across campus (and remember CSB/SJU is in central Minnesota where the biting winds of winter knock a girl down from late Oct. through late March). Once we reached the library, there was a thick reference book to search for articles on the poet/poem, A Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature (all hail, Michelle Holschuh Simmons for the reminder of the name) and then a set of stacks of print periodicals where we hoped to find the article itself. If not, then we had to inter-library loan the article (having it faxed from another library). If not looking for the most current articles, we could, of course, use the library catalog (which had just switched to a digital form) for books on the subject at hand and then go to the book stacks, perhaps stopping after all of this to copy a relevant chapter or article at the copier (10 cents a page) so we could annotate that as well.
And so, we could not access immediately the thoughts of critics and reviewers.
I confess that I am somewhat insular and often forget to think that others may have been taught differently, so imagine my surprise when the first week of discussion included references of what other people thought about the poets and poems rather than simply the student's take on the poet/poems. Of course, there is nothing wrong with this type of scholarship, and I did require research essays and class presentations that used sources. I was simply flabbergasted because I assumed the students would know that I didn't intend them to do research at the discussion level. (Yes, I am often beaten by my own assumptions!) I was also still thinking in terms of a face-to-face classroom at this point, where students don't usually go into that much depth of research before coming to class to discuss the reading of the day (or at least I didn't when I was an MFA student). So, two wrong assumptions in a row.
I quickly wrote a note to the class, explaining my expectations. I let them know that the reading should be time-consuming enough and that I didn't intend them to have to research as well (until they focused on their research essays), but, more importantly, I wanted to hear how each student met the poems on the page without the clutter of other critics or reviewers. What seemed simple enough to me actually presented a problem for several students, not an intellectual problem, but a problem of habit. They were so used to turning to the internet and "the experts" that they didn't trust their own instincts. It took us a few weeks to settle the line: feel free to look up definitions and allusion but do not read critics and reviewers until after you've formulated your own thoughts on the discussion board. After that, all was smooth sailing.
Now, I'm left to wonder, how do you read poetry? I simply can't believe that we should skip directly to the critics & reviewers. It seems to take the joy out of the reading for me, but am I just an old fuddy-duddy, stuck in the last century? Or have students been so trained in research and scholarship that they forget to read the text one-on-one, so to speak? Is this the difference between reading as a scholar and reading as a writer? What do you all think?