Teaching Poetry: Accurate Songs, or Thinking-in-Poetry

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Eleanor Cook
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     The logical faculty has infinitely more to do with Poetry
     than the Young and the inexperienced, whether writer
     or critic, ever dreams of.
     —William Wordsworth [1]

     What makes the new poetry so bad is its failure to realize
     that there is no sound poetry without intelligence.
     —James Wright [2]

     [T]he evil of thinking as poetry is not the same thing as the
     good of thinking in poetry.
     —Wallace Stevens [3]

Suppose we reverse things. Instead of asking how we can teach poetry, suppose we ask how it can teach us. What might we learn from Wallace Stevens, for example, about the art to which he was devoted—was "faithful," to use his word? Some of Stevens's lessons are so advanced that only the best poets and critics will recognize them. But he can also teach us something obvious yet perhaps startling: that thinking matters crucially when we read good poetry. Again and again, he emphasizes this, as do others, for example, Wordsworth and James Wright in my first two epigraphs. Here is Stevens, offering advice to a young writer and friend:

     True, the desire to read is an insatiable desire and you
     must read. Nevertheless, you must also think . . .
     [T]here is no passion like the passion of thinking
     which grows stronger as one grows older, even though
     one never thinks anything of any particular interest to
     anyone else. Spend an hour or two a day even if in the
     beginning you are staggered by the confusion and
     aimlessness of your thoughts.

We need to remember this when we hear Stevens saying, "The poem must resist the intelligence / Almost successfully" (CP, 350). Resist, not ignore or flee. Almost successfully, but not altogether successfully. How long was Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time on the best-seller list? And why was this, if not that people were hungry to know, to think about, what physicists make of our universe? At 26, Stevens noted "the capable, the marvellous, poetic language; and the absence of poetic thought . . . We get plenty of moods (and like them, wherever we get them) . . . .But it's the mind we want to fill" (L, 92). At 65, he wrote that "supreme poetry can be produced only on the highest possible level of the cognitive" (L, 500).

As a long-term goal in teaching Stevens, or teaching any poetry, I like to show how all good poetry requires thinking. This means combating several stereotypes: first, the stereotype where thinking is what you do in mathematics or the physical and biological sciences or philosophy or psychology; second, the stereotype of an easy division between thinking and feeling, where poetry is assigned to feeling, and judgments about feeling go unexamined; third, the stereotype where poetry is divided between "content" (associated with thought, themes, arguments that are already in existence) and "form" (associated with ornament, purple passages, hyperbole, etc., that "express" what is already in existence); fourth, the stereotypes that prevent too many people from simply enjoying art, and this includes the enjoyment of thinking about it. I'll say a word or two about these long-term goals before some particular remarks about Stevens in the classroom.

  1. Let's start with the atmosphere in which most teachers of literature work. Here's how Northrop Frye described it in 1975, and it doesn't seem to have changed much since. Teachers of literature are

         harassed and bedeviled by the dismal sexist symbology
         surrounding the humanities which [they meet]
         everywhere, even in the university itself, from freshman
         classes to the president's office. This symbology . . .
         says that the sciences, especially the physical sciences,
         are rugged, aggressive, out in the world doing things,
         and so symbolically male, whereas the literatures are
         narcissistic, intuitive, fanciful, staying at home and
         making the home more beautiful but not doing
         anything really serious, and are therefore symbolically
         female. They are, however, leisure-class females, and
         have to be attended by a caste of ladies' maids who
         prepare them for public appearance, and who are the
         teachers and critics of literature in schools and
         universities. [4]

    The tendency to assign thinking, serious thinking, to any subject but the arts or humanities is all part of this. So are fallacies of accuracy. I used to say, "Words are not as accurate as numbers," until it struck me that this was a meaningless statement. For what did I mean by accurate? I meant accurate as in 2 + 2 = 4. So all I was really saying was that words are not accurate in the same way that numbers are accurate, which is not exactly news. It may sound odd to use the word accurate in connection with poetry, but it was Stevens's word: "My dame, sing for this person accurate songs" (Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction 1.9). And Proust once observed: "In literature 'almost-parallel' lines are not worth drawing. Water (given certain conditions) boils at 100 degrees. At 98, at 99, the phenomenon does not occur. It is better, therefore, to abstain" [5]—if, that is, the author can't get it exactly right. Getting something just right in a poem: this can produce as much pleasure and knowledge as getting something just right in baseball. Getting just the right spin on a word or a group of words.

    Baseball may help. Logically considered, it makes less sense than poetry. Grown men taking a stick of wood to a small object, and racing against a set of arbitrary rules? But it's intensely human, this exercise of physical and mental skill, and beautiful to watch when seemingly preternatural ability looks effortless. We know from our own softball games how gifted those major league players are, and good commentators help us realize this. So with poetry. We all use words. Still, there's not much to encourage us to use them really well, let alone play games with them or write occasional poems. If we played softball games with words, and also regularly heard the major league word-players, with good commentators . . . It's a nice thought. And nobody supposes for a moment that baseball players don't think, even if they don't think in philosophical concepts or chemical numbers. They think in baseball: thinking-in-baseball, we might call it. Thinking-in-poetry is what poets do.

    Movies may help too, except that there are so many third-rate ones around. We have higher standards in baseball by far. But movies have the advantage of being one art form that students are relaxed about and will reflect on. That includes questions of technique. Why this shot and not that one? What precisely makes Griffith or Chaplin or Renoir or Hitchcock or X, Y, Z so good? I've watched a number of student films from a very good film school. You can trace the progress in learning the mechanics of filmmaking. But the real challenge is different. It's thinking, imaginative thinking. It's avoiding the pitfalls of novelty or hyperbole or overambitious claptrap. It has to do with a sense of proportion, a sense of shaping. It has to do with attention, passionate attention, to details it has to do with an active, examining, alive self, a thinking self, as against the passive self who just accepts without thinking whatever it's fed by the TV or movie or computer screen.

  2. As for thinking and feeling, there is one great hazard in separating them. We are accustomed to rigor and discipline in thinking. We prize it, we strive for it. But we usually do not think of rigor or discipline in connection with feeling. Our terminology for speaking of the emotions can be reduced to notions like "expression" and "suppression." As if these were the only alternatives or indeed were simple matters. Worse, "expression," any expression, becomes a good in itself, in the ignorant antipuritanism of pop psychology. What happens, T. S. Eliot asked, when our feelings are separated from our thinking, and both from our senses, so that the three function indifferent compartments? What happens to our capacity to feel? To use our senses? To think? "Instead of thinking with our feelings. . . we corrupt our feelings with ideas; we produce the public, the political, the emotional idea, evading sensation and thought . . . Mr. Chesterton's brain swarms with ideas; I see no evidence that it thinks." [6]

  3. As for content and form, the first time that the content-form metaphor turns up in a class, I stop things. Time to examine this metaphor, which is nearly always based on a container-and-contained model. "Content" is the milk or beer or important substance, what sometimes gets wrongly called the "philosophy" of A or B. (Here insert growls from good philosophers and good poets alike.) "Content" can be poured into all kinds of containers. The container or form is just what's convenient or pretty. One way to shake up this stereotype is to remember an Aristotelian notion of form, as in: the form of an oak tree is contained in an acorn. The form of an adult is contained in an infant. Form suddenly becomes something vital in these examples of the oak tree or the human being. Similarly with poems.

  4. Enjoying, and this includes enjoying thinking. Here is where I usually start when teaching Stevens, in order to get students to relax with the work. Just listening to poems can help. I read myself or else play a record of Stevens reading. What poems? There are poems of immediate sense appeal, there are funny poems, there are quirky poems, there are protest poems. Try a few of the early Florida poems: "Nomad Exquisite," "Indian River," "Fabliau of Florida." You could include "Frogs Eat Butterflies . . . " or an early seashore poem, "Hibiscus on the Sleeping Shores." You could illustrate what Stevens is not doing by reading a bit of the hilarious mock-poem "Le Bouquet" from Bowl, Cat and Broomstick (OP, 174). "Six Significant Landscapes," no. 6, is funny, centers on a suggestive analogy, curves itself on the page like its theme, and uses the familiar hat metaphor. (Putting on your thinking cap. Putting on x hat for x job.) It can also start a class thinking about thinking. There are other possible groupings, a seasonal one, for example. A New York Times column once claimed that nobody wrote poems about February. Is that so? See Stevens's "Poésie Abrutie." Other possibilities would be river and seashore poems, starry-night poems, poems of ghosts and shades, love poems, and so on.

    Any one of these groups will lead on to later work, and thereby show how Stevens enlarges his subjects as he goes on. Stevens's great river or seashore poems would include the challenging poem "The Idea of Order at Key West," as well as "Somnambulisma" and the intensely moving poem of Stevens's late years "The River of Rivers in Connecticut." But all this comes later.

    Enjoying includes the pleasure we take in exactness. As for example, why this word and not that one? W. H. Auden is said to have given his students an exercise in which he blanked out several words in a poem they didn't know and asked them to fill in the blanks. I regularly use this exercise myself. (You have to play fair, keeping enough key words.) It's fun to look for poems that use different effects. For example, "Nomad Exquisite," with its utterly unexpected alligator. Or the third section of "Someone Puts a Pineapple Together," with its dozen one-line pineapple likenesses. Or "The Plain Sense of Things," especially the start of stanza 4. (Here the surprise is not in a single word or a fresh metaphor but in the force of logic.) This exercise helps to show readers their own presuppositions and sometimes their stock responses. (There's a handy essay by I. A. Richards on stock responses, [7] and see also Christopher Ricks's opening chapter in his T.S. Eliot and Prejudice.) [8]

    All this can lead to the pleasure of dictionary exercises, the best dictionary by far being the generous multivolume Oxford English Dictionary. For any assigned poem, all students should know precise lexical meanings. For key words, they should pay attention to all the information in the OED: the word-root, cognates, and especially usage as in the illustrative quotations. These last help to give the connotations or associations of words, which are just as important as denotations. And we need to remember that poets help make dictionaries; they don't just follow them. On Stevens's unusual words, there's useful essay by R. P. Blackmur. [9] There's also Stevens's own wonderful remark: "Personally, I like words to sound wrong" (L, 340). He did like throwing curveballs.

From enjoyment, to single words, to combinations of words. (And actually words in a poem never exist in isolation but always in relation.) Yeats once wrote that he only began to make a language to his liking when he sought a "powerful and passionate syntax." [10] Watching sentence structure, our own and others, is always instructive. (Students may need a little teaching about basic grammar if their schools have deprived them of it—which is like depriving math students of the multiplication table.)

Here's one exercise that's fun. Consider James Merrill's observation about writing workshops:

     Last winter I visited a workshop in which only one out of
     fifteen poets had noticed that he needn't invariably use
     the first-person present active indicative. Poem after
     poem began: "I empty my glass . . . I go out . . . I stop
     by woods . . ." For me a "hot" tense like that can't be
     handled for very long without cool pasts and futures to
     temper it. Or some complexity of syntax, or a
     modulation into the conditional—something. An
     imperative, even an auxiliary verb, can do wonders.
     Otherwise, you get this addictive self-centered
     immediacy, harder to break oneself of than cigarettes.
     That kind of talk (which, by the way, is purely literary;
     it's never heard in life unless from foreigners or four-
     year-olds) calls to mind a speaker suspicious of words
     . . . He'll never notice "Whose woods these are I think I
     know" gliding backwards through the room, or
     "Longtemps je me suis couché de bonne heure"
     plumbing a cushion invitingly at her side. [11]

Exercise: test this in Stevens. And yes, there are surprisingly few first-person present active indicatives, one being in the third of the "Six Significant Landscapes." But then, Stevens does seem to be saying something Merrill-like to the "I" who talks this way. (See the ants.) From here, students can go on to think about person in Stevens. Who are "we" and "he" and, and? (Students might think about the use of all those at-first-anonymous he's and she's in modern short stories in contrast to the properly introduced he's and she's in nineteenth-century fiction.) There are also matter of verb tense, active and passive voice, grammatical moods, and so on.

Of course, there's much more, and especially the large question of rhythm. Hearing poetry read aloud helps to develop the ear, and this should continue throughout a course. Students often don't hear the rhythms of poetry—of a phrase, a line, a stanza. (John Hollander's lively and instructive Rhyme's Reason is invaluable for this.) [12] Try reading "The River of Rivers in Connecticut" or the first two stanzas of "Credences of Summer."

Sooner or later, the question of feeling will come up, often in the form of feeling versus thought or ideas. "Domination of Black," an extraordinary early poem, is a useful case in point. Here is what Stevens said about it, as he directed the reader away from "ideas": "I am sorry that a poem of this sort has to contain any ideas at all, because its sole purpose is to fill the mind with the images & sounds that it contains . . . . You are supposed to get heavens full of the colors and full of sounds, and you are supposed to feel as you would feel if you actually got all this" (L, 251; emphasis added). Teachers could try blanking out the word afraid at the end of the poem, and asking students to surmise what feeling they are "supposed to feel." And then to work out just how we know that such a feeling has developed rather than, say, a "delightful evening" feeling. (Stevens, in fact, wrote a funny poem under that title.) Students might also be interested in thinking about different kinds of fear. See especially the six different sentences offered by Wittgenstein, all using the clause "I am afraid," together with his comment: "To each of these sentences a special tone of voice is appropriate, and a different context." [13]

Or take the feeling of rage, and the word rage. Take also the word order, and do a dictionary exercise with both these words. Consider likely rhythms for matters of rage and of order. Likely subjects, likely settings, other poetry on these two subjects. (Try Shakespeare, via a concordance.) The turn to "The Idea of Order at Key West," beginning with the title.

Tracing the line of thought in a poem is always necessary, and should become a matter of course, just as hearing the rhythm, hearing the sentence structure, hearing the range of diction, hearing the exact form of verb and pronoun, and so on, should become matters of course. Even if a poem has a minimal line of thought, we should register this (x is a minimal-thought poem, working with abc). Everyone is suspicious of paraphrases, but such suspicion should not banish the ever-useful précis, which should be tested, every word, against the actual words of the poem. Is it adequate? (Given that it's never meant to be a substitute for the poem.) Should it be modified? How? (Where I live, students used to be trained in the invaluable art of writing a précis. That has mostly gone, so that some students have trouble following an argument, and hence of recognizing what's at stake, if anything.)

See, for example, the implicit argument in "Tea at the Palaz of Hoon" (CP, 65):

     Not less because in purple I descended
     The western day through what you called
     The loneliest air, not less was I myself.

"Not less was I myself"? Why say this? What's the logic? The day and the place ("The western day," "there") will turn out to be extraordinary, but why this opening response? Has someone said, "You were less yourself that day"? Do we ourselves say, "I was less myself that day"? No, the usual expression is simply, "I wasn't myself that day," period. That's how we often take care of extraordinary days and experiences, ones that don't fit into our regular routine, ones that are better (or worse) than usual. And so we guard ourselves against our other selves, the other better (or worse) selves. Not so Stevens. This means he can go on to say: "And there I found myself more truly and more strange."

Stevens talked about how we all carry within us a trunkful of characters (L, 91). "Hoon" was his strange, true, sublime self (early style), and he was not about to say, "I wasn't myself the day I had tea at the palaz of Hoon—or maybe was Hoon himself, serving tea." (For poetry as tea, see his lovely little poem "Tea.") And so we learn to think a bit before we say, "I wasn't myself that day." Weren't we, now?

Thinking extends to the logic of figures. Take, for example, angels. "Am I not, / Myself, only half of a figure of a sort . . .?" asks Stevens's late angel, in a wicked pun ("Angel Surrounded by Paysans" [CP, 496]). There are angels galore in Stevens, a far better selection than the impoverished angels of modern movies, those broadly comic figures with standard properties attached—haloes and wings, "tepid aureoles," said Stevens of such haloes.

"Tepid"? "I suppose that I shall feel sorry about paysans and tepid by the time this reaches you but they suit me very well today," Stevens wrote to a journal editor (L, 650). "Tepid" is fine for a bath sometimes, but not for a cup of tea and not for most feelings and not for churches. (See Revelation, the last book of the Bible: "So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth" [3.16].) An aureole or halo ought to be glowing, gold, or white-hot surely. A halo that is lukewarm to the touch is a property rejected by Stevens's necessary angel.

There are early angels in Stevens, but he is mostly anxious to shed them. "Trees, like serafin" is a simile in "Sunday Morning" (CP, 66), as if the highest order of angels, the seraphim, were being explained away in naturalistic terms. And sure enough, in "Evening Without Angels" (CP, 136), Stevens is explicit:

     Why seraphim like lutanists arranged
     Above the trees? And why the poet as
     Eternal chef d'orchestre?

It is "light / That fosters seraphim and is to them / Coiffeur of haloes, fecund jeweller." Stevens is still fighting the same battle. "Sad men made angels of the sun . . ." For him, "Bare earth is best. Bare, bare, / Except for our own houses." The reasoning is clear, and the type of argument is common enough.

At some point, Stevens decided not to fight angels but to reimagine them. After all, they do seem to have appealed to the human imagination for a long time. Rather than lopping off angels and demons—which leaves their force in the hands of others—why not reinvent them? "Bare earth" is fine, but no angelic equivalents at all? This is poverty, Stevens came to think. And so they start to return, the angels, most remarkably in 1942 in Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction: the tired angels, the goatish angels, the angel on a pond in a park, the angel in the name of Nanzia Nunzio, the capital-A Angel who listens to Stevens, the Miltonic angel who leaps downward and never lands, the angels whose functions Stevens takes over in the end. Notes is for advanced students, although teachers might like to try one or two cantos with junior students; Nanzia Nunzio is lots of fun.

Then there is the later "Angel Surrounded by Paysans" (1949), where Stevens invents "the angel of reality. . .the necessary angel of earth." He liked this angel well enough to use it as a title for his collected essays in 1951. Here is his comment on the creature: "in Angel Surrounded by Paysans the angel is the angel of reality. This is clear only if the reader is of the idea that we live in a world of the imagination, in which reality and contact with it are the great blessings. For nine readers out of ten, the necessary angel will appear to be the angel of the imagination and for nine days out of ten that is true, although it is the tenth day that counts" (L, 753).

Students often find it nearly impossible to read this angel without turning it into its contrary: an angel of imagination, after all, and an angel of heaven, after all. Our habits of thinking about all this are deeply ingrained. It takes discipline of thought to be able to imagine an angel of reality. Or discipline of imagination to be able to think of an angel of reality.

Either way, we hear Stevens writing accurate songs. We hear thinking-in-poetry. We understand more fully how Stevens can write that "the evil of thinking as poetry is not the same thing as the good of thinking in poetry" (NA, 165).


  1. William Wordsworth, letter of 24 Sept. 1827, in Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth, 2d ed., vol. 4: 1821-1828, ed. Alan G. Hill (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978), 546. (return to text)

  2. James Wright quoted in J. D. McClatchy, White Paper on Contemporary American Poetry (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), 16. (return to text)

  3. Wallace Stevens, The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination (New York: Knopf, 1951), 165. (return to text)

  4. Northrop Frye, "Expanding Eyes," in his Spiritus Mundi: Essays on Literature, Myth, and Society (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976), 102. (return to text)

  5. Marcel Proust, preface to Green Shoots, by Paul Morand, trans. H. I. Woolf (London: Chapman, 1923), 44. (return to text)

  6. T. S. Eliot, "In Memory [of Henry James]," Little Review 5 (Aug. 1918): 46. (return to text)

  7. I. A. Richards, Practical Criticism: A Study of Literary Judgment (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1929). (return to text)

  8. Christopher Richs, T. S. Eliot and Prejudice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988). (return to text)

  9. R. P. Blackmur, "Examples of Wallace Stevens," in his Form and Value in Modern Poetry (New York: Doubleday, 1957). (return to text)

  10. W. B. Yeats, "A General Introduction to My Work," Essays and Introductions (London: Macmillan, 1961), 526. (return to text)

  11. Recitative: Prose by James Merrill, ed. J. D. McClatchy (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1986), 21. (return to text)

  12. John Hollander, Rhyme's Reason: A Guide to English Verse, rev. ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989). (return to text)

  13. See Ray Monk, Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius (London: Vantage, 1991), 547. (return to text)