The Professor Is In

I own one of these gigantic collections of poetry, a sort of greatest hits since the beginning of the English language, and each of the 1,000 or so poems includes a blurb by the collection’s editor—an esteemed poet/academic, I believe—placing the poem in stylistic and historical context. The entries are informed, academically insightful, and usually don’t mean diddly-doo in the grand scheme of things. Don’t get me wrong. This collection was no doubt assembled as a text for undergraduate English students. I am all for undergraduate English students reading these great poems. For many people, college and sometimes high school English classes serve as a first introduction to the world of Literature with a capital L. The question is: what does one do after reading the poem?

I am by nature a student of form, and so for me it is interesting to learn that the villanelle saw a rise in use after the 1930s, but only in the way certain men want to know when the V8 engine first appeared. It’s nerdy really, but this kind of ticky-tacky technical knowledge gets a pass when applied to poetry. All the better for me. Couple my love of poetry with my years as a wine steward and I make a first-rate snob.

I should ask Erica Bauermeister, who was an English professor for years before turning to fiction writing, how one avoids the trap the editor fell into. Form is nice and easy to talk about, but function is why we’re drawn to poetry, and the function of poetry, as with all art, is to invite the audience into themselves.

It baffled me when I went to college and was part of why I left school without a degree. English professors have a difficult job: they are people who love literature, but you can’t merely stand up in front of twenty kids and say, “I think this book is just great! I hope you love it as much as I do.” I suppose if it fell to me I would explain the parts of the poem that are a little murky, and then ask, “What does it make you think of? Do you agree with it? Does it make you want to write a poem?” Not the kind of questions whose answers you can easily grade, but unfortunately, just as in life, the most valuable questions have no right answers.

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