Monday, September 1, 2008

Intricacies, Frictions, Evasions

My school is now knee-deep in preparations for the visit of the WASC accreditation team which will be arriving in the spring of 2010 for its regular visit, which occurs every six years. Part of our responsibility to prepare for the visit is to conduct a self-study, and the part of the self study which has consumed a lot of our time so far is the creation of a compact "current reality" statement which we can share with various constituencies within the school community — students, teachers, faculty, admin, staff, and parents — in order to test our sense of who we are and get feedback as to what we need to re-think and what items should show up in the school improvement plan which will need to include in the report which will be presented to the visiting committee. During our work on drafting the current reality statement, we have found ourselves returning to a set of words which come about as close as any we can think of to defining the educational goals of the school within the context of the school's mission statement. The phrasing goes something like this: as a school our goal is to create environments which support flexibility, collaboration, and individual attentiveness.

I've already written one post, just as we were getting started with this process in June, which mentioned this particular formulation and went on to explore some thoughts I had with regard to collaboration. Today I have it in mind to try to work into the idea of attentiveness. It's kind of a subtle word. It means something more, for example, than "attention." Asking students, our ourselves, to pay attention seems to me to be a slightly different thing than asking them to be attentive or to practice the discipline of attentiveness. "Attention" is the direction of the mind's eye, "the concentration," according to the AHED, "of the mental powers upon an object." "Attentiveness," on the other hand, seems to imply the willed extension of attention to an object over time. "Attention" is an action of the mind; "attentiveness" is a habit of mind. There is an ethical dimension to attentiveness: to be attentive to manifest a certain attitude toward one's work, to accept a certain kind of responsibility, to be, well, "care-ful."

What might this kind of care, this kind of responsibility, look like in the classroom? Well, as an English teacher, I can offer the example of the discipline of reading poetry, which certainly demands of its readers a different sort of attentiveness that associated with most other kinds of reading. Denis Donoghue, reviewing in the current (September '08) issue of Harpers a book about the status of poetry in the modern world, comes up in his closing paragraph with this observation:

Reading a poem entails, to a special degree, the act of paying attention; we are required to concentrate our minds, not only to the extent we do habitually on words as they pass in ordinary life but as we are impelled to do on words in the intricacies, frictions, and evasions of lyric form. That so much in contemporary life encourages us to do otherwise—to accept things as they are, whether for the sake of ignorance or convenience—suggests, finally, why it is that poetry matters. (98)
I like that, especially the sequence about the "intricacies, frictions, and evasions" of poetry. Which is not to say that there aren't intricacies, frictions, and evasions everywhere we turn; the three words might serve as the title of a book about the current presidential campaign, or your school, or mine, or your family, or mine. But what Donogue is suggesting is that while in everyday life we mostly choose not to pay attention to the complexities, not to hold ourselves that responsible, if we wish to think of ourselves as good readers of poetry, we have to raise the bar, so to speak, we are "required to concentrate our minds" and to commit ourselves to a more elaborated and painstaking process of attentiveness. By way of illustration of what might be entailed is a handout that over the years I have been in the habit of giving to my English students. It is my own lightly edited and slightly elaborated version of a handout that was given to me in 1978 by Helen Vendler, who was my instructor that summer during an NEH fellowship program for teachers:

Some Ways to Scan a Poem
The quality of your reading of a poem has to do with the quality of the attention you pay to the poem. There are many things to consider when reading a poem, and it's probably not possible to do all of them simultaneously. That's one of the values of re-reading: it allows you to focus on one or two things each time. One term for such a reading is "scanning," which basically means reading with one particular question or purpose or element in mind. Eventually, with sustained, patient attention during the course of multiple scannings, you can arrive at a fully-rounded awareness of all of the elements of the poetic performance.
  1. Literally. What does the poem say or assert? What parts of it make sense on first reading? What parts of it create questions in your mind? What words don't you know? (Look them up.)
  2. Structurally. How many parts does the poem have? What is the logic of the sequence of the parts? Is there a "turn" in the poem at one or more points? A shift in structure or logic? How does the poem up? Is there an implied antecedent scenario? How does the poem end? What's the effect of the ending? Where are the surprises in the poem?
  3. Syntactically. What sort of sentences appear in the poem? (interrogatives, exclamations, apostrophes, etc.) What sort of phrases? voice? mood? tense? logical articulations?
  4. Imagistically. Where and what are the images in the poem? What sorts of imagery are there? What patterns? consistent? coherent? developmental? drawn from nature? from culture? from literature?
  5. Figuratively. Are there explicit figures of speech: similes or metaphors? Are there parts of the poem which can only be taken literally? which can be can be taken literally or figuratively? which can be only be taken figuratively? Are there perhaps several levels of significance which exist simultaneously? How do they reinforce or work against each other?
  6. Musically. What sounds does the poem consist of? What patterns of sound? (rhyme? half-rhyme? assonance? consonance? onomatopoeia? How does the music of the poem reinforce, or perhaps work against, other elements in the poem?
  7. Grammatically. What parts of speech get the most use? are they clustered in notable ways? does usage change over time (e.g. a passage from the definite to the indefinite article, or from concrete nouns to abstract nouns)?
  8. Lexically. What kinds of words are being used? What sort of diction (mythological, allegorical, naturalistic, speculative, scientific, discursive)? Is there a logic to the selection of words?
  9. Prosodically. What is the rhyme scheme? the stanza form? the total form? the metrical pattern?
  10. Imaginatively. What is the founding imaginative act of the poem? (imagining the conjunction of Leda and Zeus? imagining models of human life? imagining that there are mental seasons paralleling the natural seasons, etc. What is the attraction of this act of imagination?
  11. Tonally. What tone (or tones) is taken up by the poet toward his or her material? (the same content can be treated ironically, humorously, sublimely, parodically, etc.)
  12. Aesthetically. What particular type of beauty is being aimed at? a "terrible beauty"? or a "touching" or "pathetic" or "invigorating" or "sublime" or "humorous" or "fanciful" or "whimsical" beauty, etc. And how is that effect brought about? What parts of the poem strike you as being particularly effective or "poetic." Where is the poem most successful, closest to its ideal self?
  13. Generically. What subgenre does the poem belong to? In what way does it conform to the expectations of that subgenre? In what way does it deviate from them, reformulate them, overthrow them? (Some subgenres: ode, elegy, eulogy, panegyric, confession, definition, boast, farewell, etc.)
  14. Allusively. References to other literary works, predecessors, poetic tradition?
  15. Culturally. Is the poem orthodox or heterodox with respect to the received ideas of its culture (blasphemy, paradox, revolutionary ideas, etc.)?
  16. Authorially. (That is, adopting the perspective of a writer reading as a writer.) What has the author done? How has the author done it? What steps in the writing process might be inferred? What did this writer do that I would never have thought to do? What "moves" can be observed? What would I have to do to write something which would have the structural and stylistic features of this piece of writing? Could I come up with a "recipe"?
Well, there are more, but this is a start. When you have ''scanned" the poem in each of these ways, you are more in possession of it than when you have just read it through. When you see how these scanned levels interact in a formal dynamic to make the poem happen on the page, you are on the way to a reading of the poem. After that, you can begin to connect this one poem to others by the same poet, then to others by other poets, then to tradition as a whole.
English teachers will recognize in this list many of the moves associated with the time-honored concept of "close reading," which might itself be described as "reading with full attentiveness." Two things occur to me as I look through the list and consider the imperatives implied by the interrogatives. The first is that very few adults, not to mention students, are in the habit thinking quite so broadly (and deeply: the road to depth being through breadth) about anything, much less poetry. It's just a hell of a lot of work, for one thing. It implies a seriousness of purpose that in our surface-oriented culture might very well come across as geeky and obsessive. But the second has to do with the essential nobility of the enterprise: to make a commitment to read this carefully, to be this patient, to pay this kind of attention, is to honor both the author and ourselves.

My father used to say, "What's worth doing is worth doing well." Donoghue's argument is that the reading and writing of poetry is important at least in part because it encourages us to practice and allows us to rehearse habits of mind which are of potential value to us elsewhere. I think they're both right; that quality is a function of attentiveness, whether in the reading of poems, or the building of houses, or the maintenance of friendships. And that's why it's important that my school, our schools, consciously make it their business to create environments in which attentiveness can be experienced and practiced by our students.

1 comment:

Mr. B-G said...

Some great questions here. A nice, concrete guide to make students aware of the disparate ways poetry and other types of literature can be read.