Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Reading & Teaching Poetry = Gathering Encyclopedic Knowledge of the World

45º ~ more bright sun, temps on their way up to "spring-like" for the rest of the week, no "winter precipitation" in sight ~ apologies to my eastern US friends currently under the blanket of ice & snow

I've learned a lot in my life by reading prose: novels, short stories, essays, memoirs, book-length CNF (especially memorable: The Hot Zone, which taught me all about Ebola back in the 90s). In these works, I immerse myself in new ideas and experiences I will never have myself but can expand my empathy (oh giant heart getting bigger every day). So, props to prose allowing depth.

But, there is poetry for breadth, empathy again, yes, but also breadth. In particular, I mean reading the individual poem in a lit mag, anthology, or as a teacher working with a student. When reading a bunch of individual poems by individual poets, I'm given one small window (concision) into an idea, emotion, or topic. The immersion might happen on many re-readings of the poem, but given how many poems there are to read and how short this life is, I'm more apt to keep moving through the anthology or journal at hand, gathering many, many experiences in a short time-frame. Also, when I'm reading poetry, I am much more likely to stop and turn to the dictionary, perhaps because in prose I'll allow the context to suggest meaning, and I'll move on to stick with the pace of reading full pages (depth). In poetry, the context often isn't enough, and because each word carries much more weight in a poem (compression), I find myself needing the full definition. So, I expand my vocabulary, and often my knowledge of some topic new to me.

Yet, in reading poems for students, poems that are still in the messy middle of their making, I must gather huge swaths of information I might not have at the ready. This week, I'm working with students on poems about: Jorge Luis Borges, the spotlight effect, a handmaiden attending Cleopatra at her death, Blind Willie Johnson, the Norse myth of Ragnarok, colonialism in Jamaica, basic human anatomy, cleaning out the gutters, and more, more, more. For each of these, to be the best help to my students, I have to have some basic understanding of their subjects in order to provide feedback on where the poems are working and where they are not. I confess, Wikipedia is becoming a familiar page in my Chrome history.

I confess, too, that I love my job, even as I find myself fighting for every minute to read and respond, even as my own writing time suffers. I know that all of this vast knowledge will pay off in the quiet days of summer when I have that time to come back to the blank page, filled up with images and words that have tossed & turned together for months and are only then ready to tumble out onto the page.

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