Tonight for homework you will memorize…

This is my last of my guest-blogging posts. Thanks to Joanne Jacobs for inviting me to do this again. And thanks for all the interesting and thoughtful comments.

It would be announced with great fanfare across the land: the seventh-grade sonnet experiment. Across the country, seventh graders who participated in an intensive ten-week course on sonnets would be compared with those who did not. “Research would show” that two years later, the sonnet studiers would be better writers than the control group—that their essays, letters, and other compositions had benefited from the sonnet course.

Then the objections would come rolling in: How can you tell it was the sonnet study that brought about the improvement? Perhaps they were learning good writing over the course of the sonnet study? Perhaps their schools (which participated voluntarily) had an advantage to begin with? Who is to say that the effects would be replicated? Why do we need such a study to justify the memorization of sonnets or any other poems?

Indeed, why should we have to do double backwards somersaults to justify the idea of having students memorize a sonnet? Why isn’t poetry memorization—including sonnet memorization—part of the curriculum in every grade? Why has it become something for the privileged, or for an unusual school or class here and there?

There are plenty of good reasons to memorize poems; one does not have to scrounge for them. The most obvious reason for memorization is to have the poem with you always. It is a great thing to tilt and turn in the mind. If you have a long train commute, if you are waiting in a long line, you can recite it silently. In her 2000 introduction to The American Reader, Diane Ravitch writes, “Words that are learned ‘by heart’ become one’s personal treasure, available when needed.” Sometimes a line might come to you by surprise, or you might understand a phrase in a new way. Or it may help you in a difficult time. You can find some pleasure, as Wordsworth says, “Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground.”

When you memorize a sonnet in particular, you know a compact train of thought. The sonnet has room for many shapes of argument, all in the space of fourteen lines. You develop an instinct for the motion, rhythm, and balance of an argument, for the combination of logic and word play. It’s like holding a rubber band and knowing just how far it will stretch. (For more on the logic of sonnets, see Richard Wilbur’s interview in the Atlantic.) [Read more...]

To "rest upon" an opinion

I will be guest-blogging several times for Joanne Jacobs while she is away. I have had Marianne Moore’s poem “The Student” (1941) on my mind for a while; I keep returning to it and thinking about this “student” that she describes.

It is difficult to quote from the poem, because of the enjambment from stanza to stanza. Not one of the stanzas (except for the last) ends with the end of a sentence. Another difficulty is that Moore’s poetry has many quotes, each one worthy of explanation. So be it. What intrigues me is the ending, but it makes little sense without the rest of the poem.

It is written in syllabic verse–no set meter, but a set number of syllables for each line. In each stanza (with a few exceptions), the syllable count per line is as follows: 7, 10, 8, 10, 6, 5, 11. This gives the poem a visual structure that contrasts with the relative lack of sonic structure.

The poem seems at first to defend the American idea, criticized by a lecturer, that everyone should have a college degree.

“In America,” began
the lecturer, “everyone must have a
degree. The French do not think that
all can have it, they don’t say everyone
     must go to college.” We
incline to feel, here,
     that although it may be unnecessary

to know fifteen languages,
one degree is not too much. With us, a
school—like the singing tree of which
the leaves were mouths that sang in concert—
     is both a tree of knowledge
and of liberty,–
     seen in the unanimity of college

Now Moore has moved beyond the idea of the college degree. College is important not for the degree, which seems incidental, but for the thought that takes place within it. But Moore hints at a pitfall of such institutions of thought: perhaps Americans have opinions and not much more. [Read more...]

Humpty Dumpty in poetry class

Like Humpty Dumpty in Wonderland, undergrads think poetry means whatever they say it means, regardless of the words, setting, form, tone and rhetorical devices, writes Stephen Zelnick, who teaches English at Temple, on Minding the Campus.  He committed the thought crime of telling a student her interpretation of a poem was wrong. Wrong! How could that be. It was her opinion!

In an online discussion, students argued poems evoke feelings; meaning is irrelevant or unknowable. So why bother?

It is a sad business for students that words mean something particular, that “churlish” is not a term of praise, as I had to tell one “Humpty-Dumpty-ite.” She called me “pretentious,” though I am not sure what she meant. . . .  Poems, sad to say, are not Rorschach patterns but carefully constructed designs.

Poetry for my students happens in a sacred grove where creativity runs naked and free and where no opinion is unworthy or fails to earn astonished praise.

Via Maggie’s Farm.