Blogstar: On the Pedagogy of What

by Transcendent Vision

Caveat Lector: While I feel everyone should be informed on contemporary politics and current events, my true passion is poetry. Knowing the majority of Vox’s readership to be more literate and intelligent than the average individual, I offer you my thoughts on something almost completely removed from the usual discussion.

“Honest criticism and appreciatation are directed not upon the poet but upon the poetry. If we attend to the confused cries of the newspaper critics and the susurrus [buzzing] of popular repetition that follows, we shall hear the names of poets in great numbers; if we seek not Blue-book knowledge but the enjoyment of poetry, and ask for a poem, we shall seldom find it.” – T.S. Eliot, Tradition and the Individual Talent

From a pedagogical perspective, Twentieth Century poetics find much of their intellectual root in the canonical methodology of Matthew Arnold. Arnold’s essay The Study of Poetry suggests that the critic and educator should seek poetry with “higher truth and seriousness.” The method Arnold suggests for establishing this necessarily subjective standard is the separation of the personal estimate and the real estimate. If one examines one of Arnold’s more ubiquitous poems Dover Beach, it becomes evident that Arnold’s conceit allows him to extend his personal estimate as the real estimate.

Arnold’s essay The Study of Poetry does not exist in isolation. Its precursors can be found in the Keats’ letters, Wordsworth’s preface to Lyrical Ballads, and Horace’s Ars Poetica. In nearly every traditional literary movement, the Poet attempts to define the art. Between William Carlos Williams’ Spring and All, and T.S. Eliot’s Tradition and the Individual, the discerning reader finds Modern attempts that continue this tradition, while shaping the creation of contemporary poetics. The Twentieth Century sees departures from the mode of formal verse to a heavy reliance on Vorticist, Avant-garde, and free verse; yet, one finds that poesy continues to rely on everything before and after. In this, the Twentieth Century, with its combination of Neo-Formalism and unrestricted poetics, provides models of poetry as varied as Bin Ramke’s As if the Past and Langston Hughes A Dream Deferred. There exists in the corpus of recent poetry everything from the arguably low art of Jewel to exercises in syllabics and quantitative meter.

But the fault of Arnold’s method is not immediately evident until one immerses their self in poetry. Through Arnold, the dynamics of inter-literary dialogue is lost in the pursuit of meaning. In fact, the faults of Arnold’s intellectual treatises on poetics and literature are not evident until one considers how poetry (and all literature really) is taught. The great majority of literary criticism, regardless of the genre or mode, presents itself as a multidisciplinary examination of great literary works. The majority of students and professors in the field of literature concern themselves with finding the original intent and meaning of the author through comparisons to the socioeconomic, historical, and philosophical context of a given piece. Far too often, this question is asked: what does it mean?

In this context, Western tradition reduces Haiku to a simple exercise in syllabics: 5-7-5. Despite the complexities and nuance of form and tradition, Western pedagogy teaches Haiku as nothing more than a three-line poem with 17 syllables. Lost is the mastery and craftsmanship of Basho and Issa:

Clouds appear
and bring to men a chance to rest
from looking at the moon
– Basho

a thousand years
or your first day?
song of the crane
– Issa

flittering, wheeling,
darting into strike and then
gone just as you blink
– The Dragonfly Haiku, author unknown

Excepting the third, none of the translations are rendered into English so as to retain their traditional Japanese syllabics. Nevertheless, true haiku are replete with nuance, form and function. While the sound and phonetic beauty is lost in translation, and likewise some of the original elegance, the westernization of Haiku illustrates the reliance on meaning over method.

“What this means” is a vastly different framework from “How this means.” As a master of Haiku, Basho trained his students to rely on the form and its mechanics, not their intent. Meaning is invariably decided by the individual reader, regardless of the author’s intent. The awareness of this disconnect between author and audience is indicative of the faults in Western literary method. Academics and students are too concerned with answering the question: what does it mean? Instead, the scholar and the reader should be more concerned with the question: how does it mean? No longer is one taught to discern between the various tropes: a metaphor is everything that is not simile. There is no more anaphora than there is synecdoche.

The art and beauty of poetry is not in the meaning the audience derives from a various piece, but rather, from the careful craftsmanship of language used to the construct the poem. Thoughts and images are distilled through meticulous language and care, and in this, create a vehicle for the individual audience to discern their own understanding from the Poet’s craft. More broadly, the individual reader will take away, from a poem or any piece of literature, their own meaning. The writer, as artisan, relies on everything before and after to craft their meaning, but that meaning exists only for the writer as one’s own audience. The truly pedantic and didactic lose sight of their art in trying to force a singular meaning into their words.

Spun sideways, stretched past indigo curtains,
she dances in steel shoes, on a glass floor
somewhere between limbo and lust. Ink stains
on collars: lipstick and scotch – not before
memory forgets itself in whiteboard
remnants where lightyear shadows fade loudly.
She plays with Legos and her four year old;
multicolored fabrications proudly
displayed. Under spun cotton dreams can’t sleep.
Yesterday, the concrete shifted ever so
subtly, in the not quite right twilight creep.
Open the box: a brightly dim undertow
of small hands and whisper loud nighttime cries
which fall like autumn leaves in elegy.

— K.