Several issues have emerged in these first three days of our session: I think we found multiple ways into the poetry of Dickinson, Cooley, Ginsberg, Hughes, Angelou, and Smith. I think we have complicated the relationship between the—sometimes intense—personal experience of reading poetry and the intellectual understanding of how it works by: performing critical analysis of the text itself, paying close attention to the individual words, their combination, the syntax, the diction, the deliberate absences, the punctuation, the imagery, and the speaker.  I also think we have started to discover how we, as readers, may already be present in the poem. I also think we managed to start teasing out what’s American about them—a discussion we will continue in the next three sections of the class. How’s that for a list of “thinks?”

All the poems we’ve read for this session resonate with me—though that’s not the only reason I picked them; after all we have a curriculum to cover.  In different ways—and with varying degrees of clarity—they revolve around the issue of living in specificity—with and within ourselves—while belonging (or trying to) to a larger, more complex, collective. 

Two sets of questions that we didn’t manage to think about just yet: what poetry feels like to us, what it means to us, what it does, and what our favorite poem was and why (this may also address Reba’s question of “greatness” as a category)?

Allegedly (Higginson wrote this in a letter to his wife) Dickinson described poetry in the following way: “If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?”

I think there is another way. Do you?

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2 Comments so far

  1.    Jessica Singh on June 6, 2010 6:07 pm

    Personally I think the way Dickinson describes poetry is sort of gruesome. In my opinion, I believe that poetry captures what we cannot put into words ourselves. When I read a piece that reflects my life PERFECTLY in words I could have never imagined put together, well than I know that is poetry.

  2.    Ken Nielsen on June 6, 2010 10:46 pm

    I think that’s true Jessica. The constellation of words in poetry quite often does verbalize something that is usually outside of language to me. Something that hitherto has defied expression. Sometimes when I read a poem that–for whatever reason–speaks to me, my lived experience, my dreams, or fears, it is like getting a letter from somebody who knows me well.

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