Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Why reading poetry has seemed so hard for so many people and why big anthologies inadvertently kill diversity

I think that most people have no clue about how to read poems because in school they saw individual poems taken out of their context and lumped together in random assortments called anthologies or “Readers.” What was so devastating to the poems was that they had zero context except, usually, a short biographical note for a poet. So kids were exposed to Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” and Wallace Stevens’ “The Idea of Order at Key West” but had no idea what poems were around these poems to build up to it or lay the essential groundwork. There was no sense of history or society or culture— the poem was just tossed out there on stage without even a well-informed teacher most of the time. I mean the teachers were overworked and stressed enough without having to do even more background reading etc.

This meant that most of these poems were dissected in a formalistic but vacuous way—pleasure, passion and feeling were usually left out on the playground.

Even really gifted teachers were working against the prevailing resentment and apathy built up by years of “miseducation” or “diseducation.” And they were also working against the fact that even most literature professors that they had had in their own past had also been trained in this way of reading almost every poem out of its context. The only exceptions were usually high level courses devoted to single authors; there you could finally read entire books by one poet and see how the parts fit together and how different that was.

The first time I ever heard of the idea of reading whole poetry books by single authors as a better way of reading was in graduate school at New York University. Professor Paul Magnuson, a Coleridge scholar, wrote about literary friendships and literary dialogues. And he extended this idea even further—beyond a single author’s books to the friends and books by those friends which every author is in the midst of. In other words, you could never read a poem in isolation without missing most of the meaning. Most of us—and we are talking about English literature majors—were missing out on the fact that every author is in some way already answering other previous works. Thus, we had been hearing only half of a phone conversation, but that is assuming that we had even been hearing an entire half. But most of us had few chances to read entire books by a single poets, so the real situation was much worse.

Learning to read literary works as parts of a dialogue was an incredibly expansive way to read. Depth and resonance grew everywhere. When you could hear all these added levels of meaning, it was like being suddenly able to hear harmonics in music whereas before you could only hear a single note through a decrepit old radio.

In previous generations, scholars used to call these ways of reading “influence studies,” i.e. they looked at who read whom and what that did to their works.

When I have the chance to teach poetry books, I try to make my own students read entire books so that they at least have a chance to grasp a sense of what a poet is doing. I try to tell the students at least a little about the context and the friends of the writers and why they matter. And I try to use small press publishers when I can.

I have totally given up on using those big fat monster anthologies that make so much money for so few people. The more I think about those anthologies, the more wrong they look. They cost the students too much, and they usually sell them back as soon as they can. Few students keep these things because so little personal value was invested in them when they were created—each new mega-store anthology is another Tower of Babble, with most of the same things as all the others. Worse, the big corporations will haul out new, trendier ones every few years just to force you to buy new ones.

Some of the editors are great educators and scholars who make better efforts at establishing context and giving more social, historical and cultural connections online etc.

But in the end, the anthologies are one-stop shopping. They are the Big Box store that kills the actual towns where real people and small presses live and work etc. The big fat anthologies cannot help but foster a monoculture of corpocracy even if they sincerely believe in diversity and democracy and try to include diverse writers.

The only people who break through these barriers as readers are those who feel especially driven to read, the people who follow the footnotes outside of the big fat anthology to the real resources, the original books that were robbed of their best parts so that some hefty, tree-killing New Edition could make money for some transnational conglomerate.