Shéer plód makes plough down sillion shine

Harold Bloom reports that when he first read Blake as a boy, he was attracted even though he couldn’t understand. Kenneth Koch says[1], “Once you can enjoy [poems], understanding is on the way, for pleasure, in reading a poem, is the first sign of it.”  The common thread is that poems’ attractive pleasures beckon us more immediately than (the promise of) understanding. Koch goes on to say that “different poems offer different immediate satisfactions,” and then contrasts Yeats’s “The Choice” and Stevens’s “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock” as examples.

Bloom and Koch are on to something that teachers ought to remember in their teaching, but before discussing in particular what it is, we should examine Koch further. He says, about Williams but truly of all poets, “The secret is to keep reading and to take whatever a poem gives first as what it gives first, and stick with that, and see if there is more[2].” The advice that follows then stands to reason: “Certainly you don’t have to be embarrassed by not understanding a poem right away. If teachers have taught you to be, they have done a disservice, and in fact many people, because of such teachers, have been scared away from poetry. The cure is simply to forget the bad instruction and to read some poems.”

It may be simple, but it is difficult, to forget bad instruction in poetry. It is just as difficult and rather more complicated to give up bad teaching of poems. First one has to recognize that one is doing it. What are some signs?

1. The students sometimes explain by prefacing an explanation with “the poet is trying to say….” I forbid my students to use this formula, telling them that what the poet was trying to say is what he or she actually said. If they get used to this way of “explaining,” they get used to the idea embedded in it: that their, or their teacher’s, comparatively dull, second-rate, prosaic equivalent is somehow intellectually truer and therefore better than the poet’s own words. If that is true, why did the poem, but not the explanation, take the top of my head off?

2.  The students buy into the “Hidden Meaning assumption[3], which directs one to more or less ignore the surface of the poem for some elusive and momentous significance that the poet has buried amid the words and music.” That some poets write acrostics and that Bach used the letters of his name as the notes of a fugal subject, which are hidden from ordinary sensory apprehension, are exceptions that prove the rule: poets and other artists want to show, not hide, their work. More to the point is Koch’s dictum that poems ”say what they say and suggest what they suggest.”

3.  They tend to think it better to read an “interpitation” (O’Connor’s word) than to come up with their own insights into a poem’s meaning. There may be three reasons besides laziness for this shutdown of brainpower. The first is that they have not been taught how to read closely, how to parse, how to scan, and how to justify an explanation, especially an explanation of something ambiguous; and they therefore accept someone else’s. Second, they naïvely accept the Hidden Meaning flourished before them in the “interpitation” like a rabbit from a hat—accept the trickery as genuine magic and the illusion as equivalent to insight. Third, their thinking has been debauched by deconstructionism[4] or reader-response theory to the point where they think that any explanation will do because any explanation is as “valid” as any other.

4.  They are confused by the contradictory teaching sometimes found in school, that poetry “has” all sorts of “elements” like lines, rhyme/rime[5], rhythm, tropes, and imagery requiring disciplined or focused background to marshal and write and that it is a “creative” holiday from the discipline of prose. How can it be both? The answer sometimes given—that poetry can be anything it wants to be—is empty and explains nothing.

Then what will good instruction do? A friend of mine who used to be the editor of a poetry magazine tells me that his favorite teacher in college was talking about Hopkins’s “The Windhover,” a portion of which serves as the title of this posting. He invited the students to look out the window at the saturated clayey soil and observed that plowing it on a sunny day would pressurize it, causing the water to extrude slightly and flash in the sunlight suddenly and briefly as the plow passed, the flash-point moving with the plow. A miraculous comment, though of course it was helped by there being saturated clayey soil outside the classroom window. Suddenly this strange line is possible before the students, real and as palpable as they care to make it.

Sillion? Try looking it up in a dictionary and see how far you get. The excellent website to which I just linked you gives one definition, but the Oxford Authors Gerard Manley Hopkins gives another: “a strip of arable land usually worked by a tenant farmer.” And those who know Hopkins know that he invents words and uses obscure words from dialectal English. Did he want one because it rhymed with “billion”? I think not. This British website on farming has a page called “What is sillion? A farmer’s explanation of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ most famous poem.” I winced when I saw it say that the poem is “about birdwatching,” which of course it is, in a way[6], but I got past that very quickly: it confirmed the view of the poetry website, and it makes sense. The imagery of plowed soil flashing at the plow’s cut is almost exactly parallel to the following image of coals’ glowing insides being suddenly revealed by a fall, a gall, and a gash. I hold with the farmer and the poets’ web site and think I can explain why.

That is what I would like my students to be able to do when they set out to “explain” a poem. If “The Windhover” demands too much of their exploratory skill, others are available. It is better to find those others first and let them gain confidence with them than to plop a poem down in front of them and then supply them with an explanation by magic. And thus we have another way to look at “shéer plód” than as unalloyed labor: when something is sheer, it is transparent and contains nothing Hidden. How much better this effort would then be at making their own understanding shine.

[1] In Making Your Own Days, p. 110, in the chapter on “Reading” poetry.

[2] Ibid, p 113

[3] Ibid, p. 111

[4] “Other ideas, possibly even more deleterious, are that poetry is of interest mainly as some sort of mechanism that has to be taken apart (and this may be to look for meanings that not even the author was aware of), or that poetry is important mainly in relation to its historical context: one might read, then, for example, Shakespeare’s sonnets as reflections of Renaissance dual sexuality. The trouble with such approaches to reading is that they concentrate on what is not there at the expense of what is.” (Koch) No wonder the students are baffled: We ask them to see what is not there.

[5] I use the second of these to help my dyslexic students and to lessen confusion among all students about these two easily confusable words.

[6] Though it is also about Christ-watching. See Flannery O’Connor’s description of a story of hers at the beginning of my posting two weeks back.

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