Looking back

Printer-friendly versionSend by email

Since I clearly didn’t come through with the “regular updates” on my Keats and Contemporary Poetry seminar I promised back in the fall, maybe now I can at least post some highlights of the semester that (as of today, with grading at last done--hooray!) was.

Among the great things this semester were the class presentations—knowledgeable, informative and fun—in which students introduced contemporary poems, not on the syllabus, with some relationship to Keats; I made some discoveries this way. We had a fascinating discussion for example about “This Living Hand” from Dean Young’s collection Skid, a book I hadn’t read (sadly, word is that Dean Young is himself very ill right now...). I like the idea of having students bring in their own discoveries (sort of like show-and-tell) rather than presenting on a text I've assigned (where we're both conscious of the fact that I, as the instructor, have a stake in the material and take on the material they're not fully aware of until after their presentation).

I’d been wondering at the start of the semester how the mix of MA and MFA students in the course would work out. The two groups had different styles of reading and different knowledge bases (when talking about a poem, for example, the MFAs tended to start with form and technique, and the lit. students tended to start with interpretation; the MFA students were more comfortable voicing evaluative judgments on poems, and of course had a much greater familiarity with the world of contemporary poetry they’re a part of). There were some moments of tension around the sense that there really were two communities of readers in the class, but for the most part I think these got resolved productively, and overall the class had a very strong collaborative spirit. Those moments of tension were instructive, too, reminding me as well as the students that not only do different texts demand different reading strategies, but different readers in the same classroom approach the same texts with differing techniques, goals, and expectations—a point that’s now just a given of our theory, of course, but that’s nonetheless (perhaps because of its obviousness to us on the level of theorizing about reading) sometimes difficult to plan for and manage in the classroom. And such a conflict in approaches to texts happens less often, in my experience, in undergraduate classes in the major, where all the students tend to have very similar training.  Maureen McLane’s engaging essay “Romanticism, or Now: Learning to Read in Postmodern”  proved helpful to me and my students in thinking about these issues, and in dealing with the frustration experienced by some of my students when their trusted critical tools didn’t work on certain poems (postmodern poems, or even Hyperion—which to some students was among the most foreign things we read!). (Following up on Deidre’s earlier post about note-taking, by the way, Maureen charmingly reproduces in the essay her own undergraduate notes on a poem).

And certainly one of the semester’s highlights was a delightful visit from the poet Stanley Plumly, who very generously traveled around the Washington Beltway (no easy feat, given all the traffic) to talk with us about Keats and contemporary poetry, and especially his recent Posthumous Keats. Now that’s a pedagogical strategy I strongly recommend: get a distinguished poet and gifted raconteur like Plumly to come dazzle your students with an extraordinary store of insights and anecdotes! Even if it’s anticlimactic when your visitor leaves and it’s just you in front of the classroom again, your students will be buzzing with ideas and comments, as mine were. Plumly’s visit got us thinking especially about the role of biography in the classroom and in our relationship to poetry more generally; that’s a topic worth a post of its own, coming soon (I hope)!

Pedagogies Blog Categories: 

Parent Section: 


Parent Resource: 

Pedagogies Blog


Eric, your account of your

Eric, your account of your class is a fantastic reminder of what the discipline has lost by segregating the MFA and the MA--how wonderful that you got to bridge that gap and how lucky students your students are to get the chance to experience the fact that there's more than one way and more than one reason to read! It would be great to hear more about the discoveries they brought into the classroom (and how exactly you set about inviting them to do that bringing).

Looking forward to that post on biography!

Thanks, Deidre! I agree that

Thanks, Deidre! I agree that segregating the MFA from the MA has had important consequences for the ways in which we read now--and it's interesting to think, in this context, of the number of influential critics at earlier moments in the discipline's history who were also poets or novelists (Empson, Blackmur, Winters, etc.), and whose ambidextrousness suggests a different arrangement of the professional identities and practices now assigned to the separate domains of "literary studies" and the "creative writing program." (Of course there are many poets and fiction writers in the academy now who are fine critics and scholars, and many leading figures in literary studies who are also accomplished poets or fiction writers, but I'm thinking of disciplinary norms and institutional formations and, I guess, the discipline's self-representation and the public perception of the discipline). What I found in my Keats seminar in any case was that the poets surprisingly felt quite a strong affinity for Keats, not as Romantic poet-hero or martyr for beauty, but rather as a poet approachable through the specific languages they speak: the MFA discourse of 'craft' and the young MFA student's sensitivity to very practical career issues (like Keats, they're worried about how to make a living from writing, for example, and they were very interested in discussing Keats's ambition and self-confidence, and adept at charting the evidence for that confidence in the poetry).