A few weeks ago, I asked the undergrads in my first-year writing course for feedback on what would be most helpful in the final gasps of the semester. Most of them offered predictable, though legitimate suggestions: work time in class, draft feedback, instructor conferences. But one surprised me. Written in a careful hand on a half-sheet of notebook paper, this student asked that I teach a unit on “the basic rules of academic writing.” I wasn’t sure how to respond, or even what the student meant. After a semester spent (I thought) teaching exactly those rules, I found myself identifying unexpectedly with Obi-Wan Kenobi at the end of Episode III.
“I have failed you, Anakin,” I wanted to say to my young padawan, the lava of Mustafar rumbling beneath our feet. “I have failed you.”
No doubt this feeling—something in between queasiness and hilarity—is familiar to instructors. Still, having experienced it myself now, I can sympathize with the twinge I’m about to give my many well-meaning English teachers when I divulge this next bit of information. For pretty much as long as I’ve been reading, I have not cared for poetry. I don’t really read it. I don’t go out of my way to find it. Poesy and I enjoy a relationship of polite indifference; we nod to each other in passing but rarely stop to chat.
Now, I know I should feel embarrassed by this confession. Like a doctor repulsed by sickness or a president who prefers golfing to governing, my bona fides as a PhD student in literature have, in theory, taken a serious knock. More to the point, for those who love language, poetry, not prose, often gets tossed around as language’s climax—the final frontier where words accomplish what the propositions of philosophers and scientists can only fumblingly describe. In this light, indifference is tantamount to betrayal. It’s also a betrayal of all those generous people who expended themselves exposing me to poetry they love.
But knowing I should feel bad and actually feeling bad are two different things. With a few exceptions, poetry has not arrested my imagination. It has not reached down into my belly and grabbed hold. Against the slow-burn of the immersive fantasies I enjoy, I have, for most of my reading life, found poems too short, too challenging, and too vague in their effects.
That opinion may, however, be changing. Maybe.
Like my students, I’m wrapping up another semester of coursework. In particular, I’m coming to the end of a class on American poetics, the only class I’ve ever taken that was exclusively dedicated to poetry. The course exposed me to some poets I’d read (Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman), at least one I’d heard of (Elizabeth Bishop), and a number I knew nothing about (Hart Crane, Robert Hass, Carolyn Forché, Derek Walcott, Mark Doty, and Rita Dove). It also gave me the opportunity to listen to how poets—a number of MFA candidates signed up for the course, too—discuss the work of other poets. It got me thinking.
Of course, by “thinking,” I mean only that. The class didn’t inspire an about-face in my relation to poetry, or some Benedict-Arnold-level defection. The frenetic pace of graduate classes is hardly the way I like to read fiction, much less upwards of 150 poems and twenty-plus critical and secondary texts. So if, as Emily Dickinson puts it,
Conversion of the Mind
Like Sanctifying in the Soul –
Is witnessed – not explained –
the conversion I witnessed this semester was subtle. If my previous posture re: poetry was one of self-satisfied agnosticism, a semester spent up to my eyeballs in the work of remarkable writers—the bookish equivalent of a trial by fire—has tipped me into a guarded receptiveness.
For instance, Rita Dove’s Mother Love, a contemporary retelling of the story of Demeter and Persephone, led me to think about how stories and forms can take something as abject and directionless as grief and give it structure. Similarly, in the bafflingly dense lyrics of Hart Crane—for whom doozies like “The calyx of death’s bounty giving back / A scattered chapter, livid hieroglyph” are basically SOP—I found direct evidence that body possesses an understanding of which the intellect knows nothing. Meanwhile, poets like Elizabeth Bishop and Mark Doty made me marvel at the small miracle of attention-giving.
It may be that I’ll look back at this semester as a turning point in my relationship with poetry—the threshold-moment where I finally ditched my padawan braid and was formally inducted into the Jedi Order. Content though I’ve been with the things that I enjoy, it would be nice to share, genuinely and earnestly, in the pleasure that writers like Wendell Berry and Mary Ruefle bring to people I like and admire. But till I know for sure, I suppose I’ll have to keep reading the stuff. And, of course, since my collection of poetry is predictably understocked, I’m always open to suggestions.