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   Jacket 34 — October 2007        link Jacket 34 Contents page        link Jacket Homepage

Piotr Gwiazda reviews
Poetry and Pedagogy: The challenge of the contemporary
edited by Joan Retallack and Juliana Spahr
328pp. Palgrave Macmillan. GB£37. 1403969124 hardback

This review is about 7 printed pages long. It is copyright © Piotr Gwiazda and Jacket magazine 2007.

Professing Poetry


Emerging from a symposium held in 1999 at the Bard College Institute for Writing and Thinking, this volume of essays brings together innovations in contemporary poetics and pedagogical theory. The main assumption is that academia offers the young generation the first opportunity for serious interaction with poetry as an art form. But the editors Joan Retallack and Juliana Spahr recognize that the installation of poetry in the university — both as a professional practice and an object of study — carries with it a set of distinctive challenges. On more than one occasion they quote Gertrude Stein’s comment that the official ‘we’ (which in the poetry world means the academic “we”) is always about forty years behind what is actually going on in the arts. As far as teaching poetry is concerned, long-established methodologies like close reading do not always seem suitable to the variety of today’s poetic practices. The ‘contemporary’ in this volume is primarily code for the experimental, with special attention to the multicultural, multiethnic, and multilingual. As the editors contend, experimental poetics with an oppositional bent creates educational promise because, ‘the new writing has implicitly asked for new kinds of reading and this in turn requires new approaches to teaching.’

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The challenge of the contemporary is thus both aesthetic and political. As Retallack and Spahr emphasize in their introduction, ‘pleasure is key’ to the reading and teaching of poetry, especially if it involves the idea of language as a self-enclosed system of signs and significations rather than a transparent medium used to convey human ‘experience.’ As far as poetry’s oppositional value is concerned, the editors believe that the plurality of experimental practices in the United States and around the world offers an opportunity for cross-cultural critique on a scale larger than currently found in most creative writing and literature courses. Referencing Dewey and Winnicott, the editors link the activity of reading innovative poetry with social agency: ‘the raison d’être of this book: to advocate, and provide a kind of implicit manual for, uses of those contemporary poetries that help us respond both emphatically and critically to the currents of unprecedented pressures that comprise our ongoing histories.’


Poetry and Pedagogy consists of two parts, ‘What’s the Use of Contemporary Poetry?’ and ‘A New ‘How To,’’ suggesting but not entirely adhering to a theory/practice binary. (As Retallack and Spahr acknowledge, a strict distinction would have nullified the purpose of their project.) The theoretical interventions and practical demonstrations collected here fall short of systematizing the issue of the relationship between poetry and the culture of academia, but in all fairness such no such thing would be possible if we consider the volume’s focus on ‘non-absorptive’ writing. However, the anthology still provides a much needed overview of the debates and arguments that surround experimental poetry’s place in today’s colleges and universities, justifying Charles Bernstein’s description of academia as ‘a crucial site for the introduction, the continuing reintroduction, to poetry in both its historical and contemporary particulars.’


In the first part, a few essays stand out. Alan Golding’s ‘‘Isn’t the Avant-garde Always Pedagogical’: Experimental Poetics and/as Pedagogy’ offers key remarks about the relationship between innovative writing and academic setting. It’s been half a century since Charles Olson publicly vilified the Melville Society, in a broadside letter-poem, for what he regarded as its parasitic appropriation of the writer’s art (‘we do have to have an income, so, you see, you must excuse us if we scratch each other’s backs with a dead man’s hand’). By the late 1990s, however, can observe a shift from the notion of experimental poetics as ‘didactic,’ exemplified by Olson’s proudly maintained outsider status, to ‘pedagogical,’ signifying at least a level of involvement with institutions of higher learning. But even then, Golding says, the relationship between experimental poetics and pedagogical practice remains at best ‘oblique.’ Ron Silliman, for example, has long resisted what he calls ‘academic colonization’ of contemporary poetry, whether by literature departments or by creative writing programs. Bob Perelman, on the other hand, recognizes some value in a symbiotic relationship between the two without worrying too much about the risk of cooptation. Golding ultimately leaves his opening question unanswered, but he also notes experimental poetry’s growing visibility at academic institutions, especially in the United States, in the last ten years.


Golding implies that the shift from the didactic to the pedagogical necessitates a rethinking of the conventional approaches to teaching literature. In ‘New World Studies and the Limits of National Literatures,’ Roland Greene advocates a more systemic change involving a reconsideration of the paradigm of literature along transnational rather than national lines. Although he does not specifically address the subject of contemporary poetry, Greene makes another point that is crucial to the theoretical scope of the anthology — the need to pay attention to multicultural poetries, what in their introduction the editors refer to as ‘poethics.’ In the mid-1980s Helen Vendler said that the way poetry is usually taught in American schools and universities makes it seem marginal to the notion of American national and cultural identity. For Greene that would be exactly the wrong approach to teaching poetry or, for that matter, any other type of cultural artifact. Instead, he promotes the idea of teaching transhistorically, i.e. engaging in comparative and collaborative study that can extend from Renaissance humanism to Latin American modernism and U.S. postmodern writing. In his advocacy of transnational and transhistorical paradigms, he also urges attention to ethnic and minority avant-garde writing across North and South America, especially their relationship to colonial ideologies: ‘At a time in which the old disciplinary arrangements are loosening their hold, [new world studies] gives us a common enterprise — with far from common results — across periods, languages, and canons.’


Two other essays in the first part are noteworthy. In ‘The Centrifugal Classroom,’ Lynn Keller argues that to profess poetry these days means to encourage students to talk about poetry, especially innovative poetry, not in terms of what it is ‘about’ but ‘around’ or ‘out from.’ Experimental poetries support this kind of reading, positing the scene of reading not as a private experience in which we arrive at meaning through solitary contemplation, but as a communal and collaborative exercise. Jonathan Monroe takes a different tack, arguing that it is precisely teaching contemporary poetry for its ‘pleasurable difficulty’ that allows students to ask essential questions about reading, writing, literacy, and community. The exposure to ‘difficult’ writing away from the mainstream modes makes students skeptical of the culture of homogenized taste and thus better able to participate in an increasingly complex world. ‘The best antidote to the culture of distraction,’ Monroe contends, ‘is not discursive standardization, but an enhanced awareness of discursive choices, the ability to move in and out of the varying discourses or “speech genres” that make up our daily life-worlds both “‘inside” and “outside” the academy.’


In the volume’s second part, Lyn Hejinian’s ‘Stages of Encounter with a Difficult Text’ draws a series of distinctions between explanation and meaning, poetic language and expository language, difficulty and usefulness. Hejinian’s discussion of ‘poetic logics’ draws in large part on the ideas of the Russian formalists, I.A. Richards, and Bertold Brecht, reminding us about the fundamental link between twentieth-century aesthetic theory and twenty-first-century experimental poetics. Both its speculative explorations and textual demonstrations (poems by George Oppen) will go a long way in helping instructors to combat students’ tendency to be ‘troubled by uncertainty, oppressed by confusion, exhausted by ambiguity.”


Charles Bernstein shares these concerns in ‘The Difficult Poem,’ an essay originally published in Harper’s Magazine, in which he offers a tongue-in-cheek critique of poetic accessibility à la Billy Collins: ‘No poem is ever really difficulty-free.’ In his second contribution, ‘Creative Wreading: A Primer,’ Bernstein chronicles his experiences teaching the type of writing that appears — and often remains — disjunctive, indeterminate, and open-ended. The ‘wreading’ practices he enumerates include reordering, rewriting, and otherwise altering poems, as well as ‘profiling’ poems for their rhetorical and structural features. If students resist difficulty, he argues, the focus should be on promoting the kind of encounter with a poem that doesn’t amount to ‘deciphering a fixed, graspable meaning but rather encourages performing and responding to overlapping meanings.’ After all, ‘you can’t interpret what you don’t experience.’


A similar kind of pedagogy, based on nonunderstanding rather than understanding, can be found in Lisa Samuels and Jerome McGann’s concept of ‘deformative’ or ‘performative’ reading. They also encourage unorthodox operations like altering, isolating parts of speech, and reordering, many of which transform the relation between author, text, and reader and allow us to investigate a poem’s ‘variable self.’ (The practice of reading a poem backward, for example, becomes ‘a highly regulated method for disordering the senses of a text.’) Such approaches are more widespread than we might at first suppose; after all, as the authors note, editions and translations are by definition performative. But Samuels and McGann also admit that the deformative or performative practices they propose work better with some poems rather than others. Indeed, even the examples they provide (deformations of Wallace Stevens’s ‘The Snow Man’ and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Limbo’) demonstrate why we should take these exercises ‘seriously’ but not ‘too seriously.’


The idea of doing things with texts, if not to texts, is also behind Jena Osman’s suggestion to turn the reader into a writer or, better yet, a detective in search of the ‘logics beneath [a poem’s] surface.’ Osman cites well-known examples of cryptographic procedures, Tom Phillips’s A Humument and Ronald Johnson’s RADI OS. She also describes a deformative exercise she performed in a creative writing class she once visited, during which she tore out several pages from a paperback mystery novel, handed them to students, and asked them to locate a poem inside. As Osman recalls, the pages quickly became sites of discovery, the words became objects of possibility: ‘After their initial shock and horror that I had so blithely torn pages out of a book, making the story unknowable, they quickly set to work and within minutes had created a series of funny, enigmatic, and lyrical pieces.’


Maria Damon provides politically more ambitious suggestions in ‘Post-Literary Poetry, Counterperformance, and Micropoetics.’ She imagines teaching poetry as ‘empowering citizenry,’ especially in conjunction with materials that don’t normally get studied in the classroom. As part of her critique of established pedagogical stances, she urges teachers to close the gap between cultural studies and contemporary poetry by taking more interest, in and out of the classroom, in ‘counterperformance’ (her examples include Bob Kaufman’s life and work, poetry slam artists, hip-hop and rap) and ‘micropoetics’ (graffiti, prison poetry, vernacular poetries). Damon’s intervention is particularly remarkable for its appreciation of marginalized poetries and her respectful attention to previously unexamined forms of orality. As she claims, it is primarily when we pay attention to ‘post-literate’ forms that we become better attuned to the social practice of language. Texts themselves become sites of collective meaning-making rather than hierarchical instruction as both teachers and students learn ‘new ways of hearing, reading, seeing, experiencing, making the transparent opaque and the opaque transparent.’


Other pedagogical ideas abound in the volume. Taking a somewhat different position on the ‘culture of distraction,’ in ‘Sex Dolls, Mice, and Mother’s Suitcase’ Derek Owens encourages teachers to take advantage of their students’ experience with ‘information overload and crossover media.’ Describing his own experiences of teaching contemporary writing at St. John’s University in New York City, Owens provides examples of multimedia or ‘hybrid’ projects that allowed his students to make use of their sound, visual, and textual literacy. In one of his essays, Bernstein says that he tends to teach poetry as if teaching a second language; in ‘Poetry in the Foreign Language Classroom,’ Hiram H. Maxim proposes using foreign language instruction as a way of teaching modern poetry, for instance German concrete poetry. The collection offers plenty of other suggestions for teaching non-absorptive, unfamiliar, ‘difficult’ poetries, including those by Marilyn Nourbese Philip, Lyn Hejinian, and (a particularly engaging essay by G. Matthew Jenkins) Susan Howe. It also has an appendix that lists ‘Some Places to Find New Poetries and Pedagogies,’ including such online resources like Electronic Poetry Center, Modern American Poetry, and sound/video archives UBUNet and PennSound.


Predictably enough, New Criticism gets short shrift in the discussions; it is blamed for its self-imposed theoretical limitations, if not for its implicit elitism, sexism, and racism. Although the editors consider the main methodology of the New Critics — close reading — a ‘necessity,’ they also urge a rethinking of the old paradigm for classroom instruction to accommodate the plethora of contemporary poetry’s ‘unfamiliar forms.’


A key stage in the development of ‘English’ as an academic discipline, in its heyday New Criticism transformed the way poetry was taught. It was no small achievement that the New Critics made twentieth-century poetry a legitimate subject of scholarly study and college-level instruction. As the very architects of the modernist canon, they performed feats of interpretive criticism with passion and rigor, and often with a strong sense of pedagogical purpose. At the very least, they gave modernist poetry the aura of cultural authority it still enjoys today, limited as they were by their aesthetic assumptions and social prejudices. It is their canonizing maneuvers that eventually necessitated another look at the poetry of the twentieth century through the frameworks of gender, race, class, and sexuality, as well as at the forms of experimentation that did not correspond to their particular conceptions of modernist poetics.


It is perhaps unavoidable that, notwithstanding their common interest in the value of the contemporary, today’s innovative scholars and poet-academics want to distance themselves from the New Critics. It is less unavoidable that close reading and the reading practices encouraged in the volume should be regarded as adversary to each other. The past three and a half decades have been an era of privileging contexts over texts — literary works construed as examples of social practice rather than verbal artifacts. However, most proposals featured in Poetry and Pedagogy do not so much limit as, in various ways, expand the possibilities of formalist analysis, even as they place it in closer relation to the global era’s ‘unprecedented pressures.’ As they explore the tension between form and content, they maintain a level of comfort with ambiguity and uncertainty. As they explain different stages of encounter with poems, they advocate collaborative rather than solitary reading as a way of if not understanding then at least experiencing poems.


Most strikingly, most contributors to the volume place questions of ‘the poetic’ in the forefront because those are indeed the essential questions we can ask about poems. The theoretical question ‘what is poetry’ inevitably highlights the materiality and textuality of poems: how they work, how they speak to one another, how they differ from non-poems. But it also propels us into the realm of extra-literary matters, as we become aware of the limits of our own critical judgments, the variables of literary reception, and the place of poetry in material culture. It makes us reflect on poetry’s ability to give pleasure, as we analyze how poem X or poem Y accords with our own sensibilities as readers — and again inquire precisely why we happen to value some poems rather than others, and how our individual background or cultural perspective affects our tendency to discriminate between different kinds of poetic practice. It alerts us to the existence of different forms of aesthetic pleasure, which indeed remains key within the admittedly unstable, but precisely for that reason all the more usable contemporary ‘canon.’


Only one contributor talks about close reading on terms that are openly appreciative and it is, surprisingly enough, Harryette Mullen, one of the most admired poets of today’s avant-garde. In “Between Jihad and McWorld,” Mullen initially echoes Hank Lazer’s critique of New Criticism, included in his Opposing Poetries, as pedagogically limited, but then communicates her fondness for the ‘old-fashioned’ formalist approach: ‘Those of us who have discovered or invented for ourselves new ways of reading and writing poetry should not forget that we first learned to understand poetry in a pedagogical and critical environment fostered by New Criticism, Russian formalism, structuralism, semiotics, and other by-now unfashionable modes of literary analysis.’ As Mullen notes, students unfamiliar with basic modes of formalist criticism may not be well served if faced solely with the non-normative approaches — performative, deformative, others — which, more often than not, stem from similar theoretical concerns.


Mullen elaborates on her defense of formalist analysis in describing her ‘Three or Four R’s’ approach to teaching experimental poetries, which explores the ideas of representation, rhetoric, and reader reception. This all-inclusive methodology perfectly encapsulates the idea that the anthology, so rich in examples, attempts to convey: contemporary poetry is uniquely pedagogical because of the commitment it has to both political agency and linguistic innovation.

Piotr Gwiazda

Piotr Gwiazda

Piotr Gwiazda is the author of James Merrill and W.H. Auden: Homosexuality and Poetic Influence (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007) and Gagarin Street: Poems (Washington Writers’ Publishing House, 2005). He teaches at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

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