Fluttering about online this morning, I was reminded that I am supposed to be doing a guest lecture for an old friend's second-year poetry class in a month or so. The lecture is supposed to be about Wallace Stevens' magnificent "The Idea of Order at Key West," a poem which I've mentioned here often, and which I've lectured on twice now. Thinking about, though, I realized that I've probably committed a personal heresy: I don't think I've read Stevens at all in the past six months or so, which is for me like going the same duration without nourishment, nicotine or alcohol. (Stevens is all three.) As a result, it behooves me a bit to think about what-in-the-fiery-pits-of-Hell I'm going to say, especially since it's a poem that tends to perplex younger readers almost perfectly. In other words, it's not a piece to teach flippantly or casually; it requires THOUGHT. Forethought, actually, and I'm not very good with that lately. D'oh....
I'm reminded, however, of my first lecture on Stevens' poem, maybe six years ago or so. My audience was a hundred-plus strong group of first-years--- would we call them freshpeople in this toadyingly supersensitive age?--- who were unsurprisingly baffled by the poem, but who nonetheless approached it earnestly. After the preliminary palaver, I said something to the effect of, "Okay, let's turn to the poem." My charges dutifully did so, and I began to read it aloud. What followed has become one of my favourite memories in my, er, "teaching career," as one by one my students lifted their heads from their anthologies and began staring at me with something probably best described as bewilderment. They realized, you see, that I was not reading from the book, but from memory, and something about this stunned them. They were watching me, I suspect waiting for me to stumble or to have to look down to the text, their bewilderment increasing as I kept reciting away. Suffice it to say that when I uttered the poem's final words "keener sounds," the reaction from my kids was priceless. They looked down into their books, a bit shocked it was over, their faces blanching slightly from the surprise, and then loooking back up at me as if to ask collectively, "how the fuck did you do that?" (Ah, first years....)
Before any of you start thinking I'm tooting my own horn here, let me assure I'm not. My reading was nothing exceptional. The experience, though, remains such a delight for me because it was one of the very, very few times when I managed to get my students entirely into the sound of a poem, to have them listening so intensely they weren't going back and forth between lecturer and text in the same way the rest of us do between an essay and its footnotes. It's so hard to focus an audience's concentration these days, most people having the auditory attention-span of a cat on cocaine. (Frankly, I doubt I'll be able to read the poem again as I did, my memory now as buggered as a page in parliament, and my capacity for brilliance long-since lessened to that of a Christmas tree bulb.) Teaching, one inevitably realizes, is always about little victories rather than grand accomplishments, and my little victory in that circumstance was-- miracle of miracles!-- getting those students, a la Mr Morrison, "into the music" (or would that be lyric?). That has far less to do with my reading than it does with Stevens' poem, but it was a bit breathtaking just to witness the reactions as poetry at its best does its exhilirating work, even (especially?) on a group of people only barely grasping what's being expressed.
Poetry (or modern poetry, at least), Mr Stevens once said, should elude the intelligence almost successfully, and he was right. Try explaining that, though, to undergrads searching for the dreaded "point" of every poem they read: the notion rankles their sensibilities more than suggesting four plus four equals six-hundred-and-ninety-seven. But it's a crucial lesson, and one that most can only learn when they experience something that is as mystifying as it is expressive. When, however, they do learn it, it's electrifying.
So I'll have to do some Actual Thinking, assuming that's still possible. Hell, if it is, THAT will be truly shocking.