Today in Class
Today class happened amidst the bumble and burst of plumbers and electricians, anxious dogs, and un-showered, tired, frenzied me. But it happened nonetheless. We workshopped a lot today. First, in whole-group fashion (there are 16 of us) to finish up where we left off last week with our reckless poetry. At the end of class, concentrating on sound and how sound moves through the air and into our ears and around in our noggins, students got into groups of three in which one person read while the other group members listened. After the poem, each group member wrote down what stuck the hardest in their memories, and then we talked about how the poems [we’ve been thinking about rhythm and chant] accomplished their sonic goals, or didn’t. That was fun. I bounced around the groups, interjected here and there, but mostly I let them do the talking. They’re all pretty smart readers, and I trust them.
Another of my favorite games is to annotate Philip Levine’s They Feed They Lion together with a class. I’m trying to teach students about writing annotation papers as writers versus as academic critics. It involves a helluva lot more looking at how craft informs our understanding of a poem versus simply what the poem means. Students get super frustrated, usually, about the phrase, “they feed they lion,” and they want me to tell them what it means. I tell them I don’t know what it means, but maybe by looking at how the poem is written we’ll start to get our heads around it. Chaos ensues. I write things on the chalk board. People start seeing biblical allusions and apocalypse. It’s great. Then I say something teacherly like, “well, how does all this anaphora and accreted repetition inform the poem?” Today I got some really astute answers that I’m too exhausted to expound on.
I showed students this excerpt from a Levine interview in which he explains the nascence of the poem [here] [I like the stories Mr. Levine tells]:
“The first thing that came into my mind? I had the title, which derived entirely from a statement that was made to me. I was working alongside a guy in Detroit — a black guy named Eugene — when I was probably about twenty-four. He was a somewhat older guy, and we were sorting universal joints, which are part of the drive-shaft of a car. The guy who owned the place had bought used ones, and we were supposed to sort the ones that could be rebuilt and made into usable replacement parts from the ones that were too badly damaged. So we spread them out on the concrete floor, and we were looking at them carefully, because we were the guys who’d then do the job of rebuilding them. We had two sacks that we were putting them in — burlap sacks — and at one point Eugene held up a sack, and on it were the words ‘Detroit Municipal Zoo. And he laughed, and said, ‘They feed they lion they meal in they sacks.’ That’s exactly what he said! And I thought, This guy’s a genius with language. He laughed when he said it, because he knew that he was speaking an English that I didn’t speak, but that I would understand, of course. He was almost parodying it, even though he appreciated the loveliness of it. It stuck in my mind, and then one night just after the riots in Detroit — I’d gone back to the city to see what had happened — somehow I thought of that line. ‘There’s a poem there,’ I said. ‘But I don’t know what it is. And I’m just going to walk around for a couple of days and see what accumulates.’
I waited two days, got a good night’s sleep, and got up in the morning and wrote the damn thing. It struck me that it was a long line, and that it would be out of the poet Christopher Smart. Do you know his work? He’s an eighteenth-century mystical poet, a great poet, and his greatest poem was written in a madhouse. We only have a fragment of it. It’s a sort of call-and-response poem — very incantatory. I said, ‘That’s the rhythm I’m going to try and use.’ It’s the only time I’ve ever tried to utilize that rhythm.”
Funny thing about Christopher Smart: an entire 74-line section of his Jubilate Agno was written as an ode to his cat Jeoffry. Here’s a stanza from that:
- For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
- For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him.
- For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his Way.
- For this is done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
- For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer…
Oh dear. I forgot to talk about Smart, though.
I forget many things in class. Students laugh. We laugh.
Next week we’re looking at alternate surfaces alà Paul Violi’s Index, among many other examples that I have yet to compile. During research for said unit, I stumbled upon a site called Public Assemblage, which randomly takes lines from around 40 different news and media venues (you click on each one you want to use) and creates an assemblage collage of language.
I’m excited about next week because my students’ reviews of contemporary poetry collections or lit mags are due. Yee haw!
PS: My water’s back on, my sink is fixed, and I am clean.