Archive for September, 2009

TC – Poetry

I’ve embarked on a new Teaching Company Course How to read and Understand Poetry, taught by William Spiegelman  It is lovely to listen to and think about poems while commuting to work, facing another day of drudgery.  As Goethe said, “One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture,  and if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words.” 

Professor Spiegelman has a good speaking manner, which a teacher ought to have if he or she can possibly manage it.  He is not quite so puckish and funny as McWhorter, but so far anyway he sticks to the topic and does not intrude upon it.  More to the point, I was immediately struck by his assertion that poems are not about ideas.  He tells a story of the painter, Degas, mentioning to his friend, the poet Mallarme, that he would like to write poems as he had so many ideas.  Mallarme replied, “My dear Degas, poems are not made of ideas, but words.”  A simple, even obvious, statement, but one that bears thinking about, for it is the choice and setting and arrangement of words that makes a poem what it is more than what the poet is trying to say, which according to Spiegelman, can be boiled down to half-a-dozen or so main ideas – love, death, living, etc.

His first poems are a pair by Wordsworth, the much-loved “I wandered lonely as a Cloud” which he amplifies with some biographical details about Wordsworth and then “The Reaper”which I had never read.  It would be helpful to read each poem first (which he suggests), because unlike the first poem which I know well, my unfamiliarity with the second made it somewhat hard to follow.  The poems themselves are not included in the bibliography so it will take some effort to hunt them up.  He then did Yeats’ “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” which I know by heart and spoke beautifully of the restful, dreamy rhythms of the poem.  He mentions that Yeats had been reading Thoreau and was influenced by him in writing this poem but adds that his seeker after simplicity is far from being practical, his vision is idealized, not pragmatic.  He states the longing of the poet to get away from the modern world, but I think he misses something of central importance.  The twice-stated, “I will arise and go now”, seems too forceful for the rest of the poem and you get the feeling that he is not actually going to fulfill this ambition, that he is lying on a couch, inert, and will not summon the will to do what Thoreau did, that he will after all stay “on the pavements” grey.  The next poem is by another favorite of mine, Edna St Vincent Millay.  As Spiegelman notes, she is not so well-regarded these days, but I have loved her since junior high, reading “we were very tired, we were very merry, we went back and forth all night on a ferry.”  I love many of her poems, but do not remember this one, “The Buck in the Snow.”  The language and imagery are stunning.  It’s a fine example of her genius and from a simple snowy scene with deer in flight reaches to the very “strangeness” of life and death.


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