Friday, January 28, 2005

Wow, it feels good to be writing, really writing, for the first time in a while, and teaching where I live, mentally. I'm trying to break the superstition that if I talk about it, the writing, that it will go away, that the work will sour, turn to shit. A residue of my childhood, of magical thinking in the face of powerlessness, where I thought: if I don't love this person, maybe they will love my not loving them back. If I don't want it, I'll get it. Which of course never works, since the not-wanting is only a kind of masquerading want.

But it's also a bit terrifying that poetry meets some foundational need in me that everything else, however powerful or enriching or life-consuming, can't. Not the love of the most wonderful of women, not fatherhood, not faith in an invented, alien voice in a world born of error, and not all of the life-saving things I've had to do to stay here on earth and share such maunderings with you. Maybe this will change someday.

My Post-WWII Am. Po. students are falling in love with Berryman, which is wonderful to watch, learning his idiom and thinking about self-invention and self-construction in B. as a reaction to and repudiation of Eliotian depersonalization. Read in this light, the Henrification of the child-sized and half-abandoned lyric I, the Henrification of Berryman's life, the creation of persona as an escape from personality and emotion only leads to hysteria, repetition-compulsion and some damn good poetry. But in The Dream Songs, unlike in The Waste Land and Prufrock, the I survives to tell about it, survives the foundering of the poetic vessel into 1st, 2nd and 3rd person strains. It puts me in mind of Josh Corey's Heideggerian reading of Whitman, where there is the socialized, inauthentic Walt Whitman, a cosmos, and then the authentic "me myself" that stands "apart from the pulling and hauling." Berryman, though, interpolates a third term here, the imaginary friend who serves to remind Henry of the common denominator he shares with everyone else: mortality, his "Bones" which to the plain, non-archaeological eye would look remarkably similar to anyone else's. It is this friend who permits Henry's daring and to some offensive identification with, and transformation into, the marginalized and dispossessed, the preterite-- Holocaust victims and the victims of American slavery and white supremacy. As Berryman himself learned when arguing with an anti-semite who later called him a Jew--because he "looked like a Jew and talked like a Jew"--such designations are in part something that one is called from without, not a calling from within. I'm eager to see how my students think through this difficult material, and what it might tell us, in a few weeks, about Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. To be continued. . .

In my other class, Advanced Poetry Writing, it appears that my students are attracted by and large to the experimental and difficult, picking poems by Bruce Andrews, Rae Armantrout, Michael Burkard and Dan Beachy-Quick over some of the more conventional but no less accomplished offerings in our three anthologies: BAP 2001, BAP 2004 and The Iowa Anthology of New American Poetries. Does this contradict Josh's hypothesis about the initiation required for an appreciation of experimental poetry? Or do they--having studied and written poetry, but not necessarily being that well-read--count as already-initiated? Does initiation mean fostering a willingness to be surprised? For their experience, at least as relayed to me, was one of discovery; many comments along the lines of: I've never seen someone do this before, and I want to understand how and why it works. Of course, this isn't a very reliable empirical survey, since it's obvious to them what I value and since my assignments have clearly sought to motivate experimentation on their part. So maybe I've already initiated them, in which case it's not such a hard thing to do. More like a baptism. Dunk them in the water twice and presto! Had lots of smart things to say, they did: comments like "in this poem, the dashes function more like words than punctuation." So thrilling to have engaged, trenchant students.

An auspicious start to the semester, then, and I have four-day weekends! I'm going to try and post more frequently and add a few more links Th-M. Thanks to all who keep visiting. You force me to think as clearly as I can.

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