Reading: Mostly Poetry Criticism and Theory

In the recent month or so, while my grading load has been heavy and there hasn’t been much time for reading, I have been reading a lot of smaller things, mostly about poetry. Well, I graded the last of the major papers for English 12 on Thursday and our magnet’s annual sketch comedy show, “Schadenfreude,” was last night – and it was very successful – so other than giving and grading exams I’m about done with the school year.

One of those little things I have been doing has been picking through an old paperback copy of Louis Untermeyer’s Lives of the Poets that was left in our house when we bought it. One of my two professional development goals for next year is to improve my base knowledge of the British literature that I am teaching to seniors. It was hard this year refreshing myself quickly on things I hadn’t read and studied since the mid-1990s, so I want to get better bearings on as many of the works and writers as I can, from “Dream of the Rood” to Chaucer to Le Morte d’Arthur to Wordsworth to Matthew Arnold. I’ve read Untermeyer’s chapters on “Foundations” and the chapter on Geoffrey Chaucer.

I’ve also been going back through some articles from the Writers’ Chronicle, either reading ones I neglected when they came out or ones I wanted to re-read. The first among those articles was “The Possibilities and Perils of Writing Poems About Visual Art,” a discussion of ekphrastic poetry by Lauren Rusk, in the March/April 2007 issue, which I noticed because I recently tried for the first time a writing project that involved my students to the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts to choose a work of art and write a literary work based on or inspired by it. I had never before heard the term “ekphrastic poetry,” so at bare minimum I have gained one more piece of esoteric knowledge.

Another article, “The Reinventions of American Poetry Now” by Ed Ochester, was one I noticed while reading the first article, and decided to read it, too. Ochester’s article discussed demystifying American poetry, getting away from TS Eliot’s idea that it has to be difficult to be good. This issue is a major part of my teaching, because high school students – ones who will potentially be the poets and poetry readers of tomorrow – get so frustrated with overly difficult poetry; Ochester made one particularly good point: most people aren’t going to give a poem the five or more readings it will take to really dissect a complex poem, so a poet may be relegating himself to obscurity by embracing Eliot’s ideal.

Finally, I also re-read David Wojahn’s article, “The Fate of Political Poetry” in the May/Summer 2007 issue, and got a lot more out of it than the first time I read it. Initially, I couldn’t get over the fact that he listed John Beecher’s name explicitly as a political poet who fails – I still disagree with him on this matter. – but I got his message better this time. Wojahn seems to believe that Bob Dylan is the definitive modern political poet – in the same way that Harold Bloom calls William Shakespeare the definitive Western writer in The Western Canon – and he wants to see more political poetry that has Dylan’s power and originality without being copies of Dylan. Okay, I see your point now, Mr. Wojahn.

So am I actually reading any poetry? Yes, that too. I’ve been picking through Jennifer Horne’s collection, Working the Dirt, and reading some in Locales, too. Both Southern poetry anthologies. Since my New Year’s resolution was to get back to poetry again, specifically to writing it, which I have also been doing a little bit, it feels good not only to get back to something I enjoy, but also to actually keep a New Year’s resolution!


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