March 24, 2016KR BlogBlogCurrent EventsEthicsReading

Any Last Words

Over at Edutopia, ninth grade English teacher Brett Vogelsinger recently made the case for beginning each class with a poem, citing and expanding upon brevity, intensity, connection, and inspiration as his “Four Reasons to Start Class With a Poem Each Day.”

I would add some benefits that build off of Vogelsinger’s list, though they are benefits that are perhaps too dark and vague to convince others to begin or end class with poetry—the opportunity to interface with the unknown; the chance to practice the mystery, instability, and terror of beginnings and endings.

Some of the poems that I hold dearest, the lines that are my lifelines, are those that leave me in Keats’s “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts.” They can’t be neatly reduced to to a particular central figure—metaphor, simile, analogy, symbol—yet they exhilarate. Through them, we reckon with a luminous abyss. These are the poems or lines that critics and teachers refer to as “enigmatic” or “elusive.”

For example, in Robert Lowell’s “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,” how do we possibly reconcile the poem with its final line—”The Lord survives the rainbow of His will”? And yet the poem tells us that we must, wedding the “enigmatic” last line to the rest of the poem through both the meter and perfect rhyme of a closing couplet (“And blue-lung’d combers lumbered to the kill. / The Lord survives the rainbow of His will”), and through the sheer syntactic intensity of the sentence that begins and begins and begins the penultimate line, carrying over ten previous lines before crashing into the final couplet:

. . . It’s well;
Atlantic, you are fouled with the blue sailors,
Sea-monsters, upward angel, downward fish:
Unmarried and corroding, spare of flesh
Mart once of supercilious, wing’d clippers,
Atlantic, where your bell-trap guts its spoil
You could cut the brackish winds with a knife
Here in Nantucket, and cast up the time
When the Lord God formed man from the sea’s slime
And breathed into his face the breath of life,
And blue-lung’d combers lumbered to the kill.
The Lord survives the rainbow of His will.

Of this ending, Aaron Baker writes: “Without adding to the voluminous interpretation of those lines, I’d like to just notice that they lend themselves to voluminous interpretation.”

Which is also to say: they lend themselves to silence.

Emily Dickinson’s “My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun” (754) is another famously enigmatic poem through which a reader can again and again practice the art of negative capability. While there have been numerous strong, feminist interpretations of this poem, I love to think of its ending as an arts poetica against interpretation (which doesn’t make it any less feminist!):

Though I than He—may longer live
He longer must—than I—
For I have but the power to kill,
Without—the power to die—

And even so, when I try to put into words what I mean by “an arts poetica against interpretation,” I come up against my own wordlessness.

Elizabeth Bishop’s “Casabianca,” for all its brevity, intensity, connection, and inspiration, remains a kind of recursive, elusive enigma, and therein lies its power. It begins: “Love’s the boy stood on the burning deck / trying to recite ‘The boy stood on  / the burning deck.'”

In a cultural moment (read: the seeming political ascendance of Donald Trump) that often glorifies the anti-intellectual as the “authentic,” reading poetry can reacquaint us with a kind of active un-knowing—an engagement with mystery or the limits of our understanding that is in many ways the cerebral, emotional (I want to say moral?) opposite of the refusal to learn or grow or move outside of a comfort zone or . . . I don’t know. (And love’s the burning boy.)