I forgot there was a poetry reading on my campus yesterday and I unknowingly wandered into it.
The donor appreciation dinner was fine—there was good food and while I’m not great at making small talk, I’m good enough at faking it. I was able to dig out the only bag of earl grey tea there was and drank that. But I left early, because I felt like I had to go to the library, but I didn’t know exactly what was pulling me that way. My favorite dining hall is right next to it, but I had already eaten so I wasn’t going for food (although I did end up getting another tea).
When I walked into the library, I saw signs for the event and realized that that must have been why I was going; there had been an email about it sometime last week, and I not only check my email compulsively, I don’t delete the things I’ve read unless they’re junk or spam or offers for off-campus housing. So somewhere in my mind I must have known there was a thing happening in the library, and at least one of my professors was involved, and poetry too, so I ended up getting there and being offered more free food (which I gladly took).
Fred Marchant was the guest, and the subject of the reading (besides his own poetry) was Seamus Heaney.
I’ve already talked a lot about why you should go to readings if you have the time and energy and ability to do so—they’re usually great fun, and you can learn a lot about people and writers themselves by going. I like these events because I like hearing literature aloud, and I like being able to get out of my room every once in a while.
Marchant’s poetry is striking. The images resonated with me—specifically, those of bicycles and of a Hermes typewriter (maybe because I’m well-acquainted with both)—and I had a good time.
It does make me a little regretful, though, when I listen to the stories that others have about the poetic greats of recent American literature: We’re all essentially on the same grounds when it comes to men like Whitman, but for people like Robert Lowell, there are plenty of men and women still alive today who were able to meet them and have stories about them, and are capable of talking about them, and I wish that I could be one of them. I wish I had stories about having lunch with famous poets or writers. I’m not sure I do. I talk about them a lot, though, so maybe that will have to be my substitute.
Another thing that occurred to me during this event was that, by nature, poetry tends to be cyclical. It’s nobody’s fault that the human condition has remained the same since Homer’s day. We all try talking about it in our own way, try to relate what’s going on in the world around us back to our own day-to-day experiences, which is necessary. I think of the light streaming in through the window of a farm in one of the poems from last night and the unexplainable feeling of worry that came with it, and I’m reminded of Dickinson’s certain slant of light. Most things tie back to others and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
So if students then are reading poetry and they feel like it’s all the same, maybe there is a thread along everything that they’re reading, and it’s important to try to point it out and to tie these works together. Furthermore, rather than point it out ourselves as teachers to the students, maybe it’s even more important for them to figure out that connecting thread themselves—we can lead them with questions such as, “In which ways are the things Whitman is saying consistent with transcendentalist thought?” or “How are the concerns in Whitman’s poetry similar or different from the concerns in Dickinson’s poetry?” but unless they’re able to make those connections by themselves, it’s kind of a useless activity of playing Pin the Tail on the Donkey without actually know what a donkey looks like to begin with. We can show them that these poems are going to be similar (or different) and we can let them know that almost all poetry relies on trying to work out a crisis, but until they see it for themselves, they’re not going to get that light bulb moment.
All of these things are running in my mind as I sit through the reading and try to absorb the poetry myself, and while on the one hand the best way to understand a poem is to hear how it’s read, on the other—when you’re in a singular moment, it’s impossible to take a freeze frame to analyze it and instead you’ve got to rely on what you’ve got at the forefront of your brain.