20 June 2005

Teaching Poetry in a Prose Culture

Taking Lyrics Literally: Teaching Poetry in a Prose Culture is an essay by Charles Altieri, which discusses how we might best lead conversations about poems and describe the values they make available for cultural life. Starting from the focus on how poems work rather than what they might be saying, he identifies New Criticism’s emphasis on literature’s ability to carry non-discursive truths and ‘special’ knowledge. However, extended experience of the lyric develops powers and modes of attention that are at odds with many of the epistemic priorities driving Enlightenment modernity. Poetry makes propositions concerned with the feelings performed and extended, rather than with truths realised and tested. So he suggests that poetry is important because it provides an alternative, non-epistemic way of addressing discourse about value.

His concerns are:
1. to call attention to how pages work as material objects, to the physical capacities of sound, to sounding the poem
2. to have students take on the speaking voices of poems and see how these allow provisional identification with different identities, imaginative situations and thus emotions 

3. the genre’s commitment to articulation which keeps the difficulties alive, so that we feel the adjustments necessary for trusting any language at all to express what we feel
4. intensity as a value; or, that apparent rigidity of structure also sets the stage for complex deviations and syntactic mobility; intensity depends on properties like concision and patterning   

5. the alternative route to grounding values, not because of some argument, but because, via provisional identifications, we revel in a state where we relate differently to our surroundings
6. that what cannot be accomplished by argument comes in the affective dimension of our experience with poetry, yet most reader-response theory collapses the text into the free-working of the responding psyche, as if there were no value in having ourselves contour to the specific structural and affective demands that the text makes upon us

Charles Altieri’s essay is that most interesting thing I have ever found online. Read it here.