Introduction to Poetry

by Matthew Koslowski on July 7, 2010
in Essays

I often wonder why people think reading a poem is different than reading other works of fiction. When you pick up Tinkers by Paul Harding or Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk or A Million Little Pieces by James Frey, you just start reading. You do not aim to discover the meaning of the work until you have worked through the story.

But with a poem people start trying to figure the meaning from the minute they read the title. If you are trying to determine the meaning of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” from the moment you begin reading it, you will miss the horror of picturing a raven flying into your house and speaking to you. If you are trying to discover the meaning of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” you will miss the woods, lovely, dark, and deep.

My friend lent me Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems by Billy Collins.

I sat in a Dunkin’ Donuts reading through it and I nearly spat out my coffee in surprise. (I am sure she’s glad that I didn’t: she lent me an autographed copy.) One of his poems echoes what I wrote in Diving into Poetry two weeks ago.

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Diving into Poetry

by Matthew Koslowski on June 23, 2010
in Essays

“A poem needs understanding through the senses. The point of diving in a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore, but to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of water. You do not work the lake out. It is an experience beyond thought. Poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept mystery.”
– John Keats in the film Bright Star

Bright Star has become one of my favorite movies since I saw it twice in theatres. And my favorite scene from the film is the poetry lesson that John Keats gives Fanny Brawne. Fanny states she does not know how to work out a poem, as so many of us would say if someone asked us how to work out a poem. Keats responds with the above.

The last few nights I have watched again and again and again this particular scene. Keats gives an entire year’s worth of poetic instruction in that single scene.

* * *

Lately in discussing poetry with my friends, they say, “I am no expert in poetry,” or “I do not understand poetry,” even before we have discussed a poem. If I were to ask a friend what they thought of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club or Hubert Selby Jr.’s Requiem for a Dream, would they say, “Oh, I am no expert in novels”?

No, they would not. The very idea is ridiculous.

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Scientific Literature

Medicine, law, business, engineering are necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love are what we stay alive for.

–John Keating, Dead Poet’s Society

She said, “I didn’t take any literature courses in college. The only courses I took were in technical writing for the sciences. They were in the English Department, even though writing for the sciences isn’t literature.”

I grew sad thinking that scientific writing is no longer literature.

One of the first essays I published on Literature&Literacy was about this very topic. There was a time when the word “literature” was used to encompass all of the written word and the word “poetry” was used to encompass both prose fiction and verse. At that time, being literate included having a knowledge of the scientific writing of the day.

But I cannot fault what she said. I do not read Scientific American nor Nature. I do not read Popular Mechanic nor MAKE Magazine.

And that also makes me sad.

While I am not wholly ignorant of contemporary science, I am nearly so. I chalk this up to the sciences becoming increasingly specialized. Little seems to be written for the popular audience, though want of finding might be from want of looking.

I remember sitting with friends in college for dinner. They were all scientists of some sort — physicists, biologists, astronomers — and they each knew enough about the others’ work to understand the conversation. I believe they were talking about string theory. But what they were talking about was so beyond the physics I had studied in high school that I just felt stupid.

And perhaps that feeling of ineptitude, of stupidity, of a dumbness kept me from studying the sciences.

The sciences that interested me most were the brain sciences. Although I finished with degrees in the humanities and the history of art, I chose schools based on whether they offered undergraduate degrees on neuroscience. And I do occasionally read some on neuroscience. Some of the most useful ideas I’ve encountered about our minds and how they function came from reading Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama. And Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time left me with a sense of wonder.

My interest has always lain in how to live in this life, how others live in this life. Technology interests me only so far as it is part of my life and people engage it. In some ways, I dislike technology because it removes a human element from our life; yet, I do not want to see people’s bodies ache from back breaking labor like in Millet’s The Sower.

Science does not answer these questions.

For that reason both the sciences and the arts are necessary. They have different domains and do not work to answer the same questions.

Shaking the Tent

His voice fell at the end of each sentence. At first he had placed the microphone on his shirt pocket, which only picked up the occasional bit of phrase or word. Sitting in the front, I could hear him without the aid of the microphone.

Yet Alex Green, owner of Back Pages Books, kept me rapt as he talked about Ralph Waldo Emerson.

When we think of thinkers and poets, we think of them at the end of their lives when we are able to see their work as a whole. We look at Emerson as the Concord intellectual, perhaps as the surly man who wrote disparagingly of how others misconstrued his work. We read “Nature” and “Self-Reliance” and see them as works of little moment.

Mr. Green took a different tack. He spoke about the first two sermons that Emerson delivered after his ordination, as a young man of twenty-three, the man with a family history of great ministers. “This is where it all started,” Mr. Green said. “You can see the seeds of his later works in these sermons. No, these works are uneven, he was still a young man and not in full control of his powers. But you can see so much in these two sermons.”

When we think of industrialization, of the Industrial Revolution, we often think of Lowell, Massachusetts. Mr. Green argued that we should look at Waltham, Massachusetts, first. “Studying the Industrial Revolution starting in Lowell is like studying the Civil War starting with the first battle that the Union Army won.” Rather than building a mill town from the ground as they did in Lowell, the first mills were built in Waltham, a farming community that some of the wealthy Bostonians used as their summer home.

And, when thinking of these sermons, it is important to remember that these wealthy citizens would have gone back to Boston in the fall. Emerson gave a bright burning speech. My memory cannot do it justice. But I shivered as I listened to Mr. Green read Emerson’s words.

During the question and answer period, I asked about the influences of Eastern thought and mysticism on Emerson, if he could see them in these early sermons. He said that he thought he sensed something there. In Emerson’s notebooks and journals, Mr. Green said, there are references to Byron and Shelley. “Although their works were caricatures or cartoons of Eastern thought, I think some of what filters down to Emerson comes straight from the English Romantic poets, particularly Byron.” The Romantics were fascinated with the East and some of the first translations of Eastern literature was becoming available.

Talking with him after his lecture, Mr. Green admitted he didn’t know as much about the roots of Emerson’s interest in Eastern thought. I reminded him of the reference in Walden about Thoreau sitting in contemplation, what we would now call meditation. We both wondered when, specifically, they began studying, what they read, and what they knew.

I think Mr. Green has found the topic of his next lecture on Emerson.

And when he presents, I will be there.

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Assessing Whole Students

by Matthew Koslowski on May 19, 2010
in Essays

“When I become a teacher, my students are going to look at my syllabus and say, ‘You expect us to do what now?’” my friend D. said. “I believe in the multiple-intelligences theory.”

We talk about the freedom that the Digital Age has given us for self-expression.

But has it really? The Internet is, largely, a text-based medium. Yes, we do have websites that are visual galleries but, for example, the website of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston — and even the galleries themselves — are filled with text.

Writing is becoming an ever more important skill. Kara Miller wrote an op-ed in today’s Boston Globe, “Failure to communicate“, in which she discusses how weak are the writing skills of incoming college students.

To some degree, it’s a mathematical problem. If it takes me all weekend to correct 40 papers, how can a high school English teacher begin to tackle 120 papers (four sections, 30 students per section) in a detail-oriented way?

–Kara Miller

I have thought about this problem myself as I pursue becoming a teacher. Robyn Jackson in her book Never Work Harder Than Your Students & Other Principles of Great Teaching suggested if students are weak on developing opening paragraphs for essays, give them assignments just on opening paragraphs; if they are weak on topic sentences, give them assignments on topic sentences; if they are weak on the structure of an entire essay, give them assignments to write entire essays. I think of the hundreds of students I will have and how long it will take just those shorter assignments.

I admire D. She’s very passionate about challenging her future students and encouraging them to think for themselves. I admire that she wants to use a portfolio system — requiring tests, essays, presentations, and class participation — rather relying solely on one channel. In fact, that is the kind of assessment system that I want to use. But I wonder how much of our time employing that is going to require.

I have thought about giving students two grades per paper. The first for their grammar and the second for their arguments. Reading Kara Miller’s op-ed article, I wonder if I can really separate the two. If the student does not clearly spell out what he or she meant to say, then the teacher is just guessing at the meaning.

D., by her own admission, did not get the best grades in high school. She was not interested in the history she was taught and only rarely in the books. Her interests were more attuned to what she’s now studying, philosophy and psychology. She did not feel engaged with the work and as such did not care about the assessments she was given.

“Middle and high schools do not teach critical thinking,” she asserts.

I remember feeling that way as well. Disagreeing with the teacher in an essay was often a recipe for a bad grade, even in honors and advanced placement classes. And this was before the institution of high stakes testing in Massachussetts.

How can the MCAS assess critical thinking?

It cannot, and we should not expect it to measure that. The MCAS presents the items as if everything can be categorized as right or wrong. We can agree that Shakespeare wrote sonnets and plays, that his works were written in iambic pentameter, often rhyming; we can agree that Thomas Hardy wrote novels and poetry, perhaps we can even agree that it was the poor reviews of critics of his poetry that pushed him to writing novels; and we can call facts forms in which authors wrote, works that are attributed to them.

But on the meaning of the work, on the interpretation of the works, there is plenty of room for disagreement. You may think this passage was parody, was an ironic comment on something; I may think the author meant it as stated. The author cannot tell us and, in truth, I wouldn’t want him or her to clarify.

Ambiguity is good for thought.

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