I admit, it has been a whole semester. I’m sorry. These are still the confessions of an English major:
The past couple of months have been chaotic, insane, frustrating, and undoubtedly the most amazing to date. To list all the fascinating things I’ve learned and all the interesting discussions I’ve had this semester would be pointless because there are simply too many things to list even briefly and I feel I wouldn’t do any of them justice. Even so, the purpose of this blog is to chronicle my continuing voyage into the world of literature, so I will do my best.
This semester promised to be challenging from day one. On top of a heavier credit load and more rigorous major-specific classes, I added a time-intensive night-shift job. I’ve heard it said before that college life is a PICK TWO: academics or social life or sleep. Never, never have I felt the effects of this selection so acutely before. Before you ask, I picked academics and sleep (although, there are nights when it seems more like a PICK ONE kind of deal and sleep just doesn’t make the cut). Call it training for the real world, that’s what I’m doing. Even as I quietly mourn the passing of my social life into the great void, I can’t bring myself to be anything but satisfied. Sure, it’d be nice to say I get out on the weekends, but I’ll never trade the progress I’ve made in my studies for a Friday night rager.
It seems just a bit useless to say this because it was never really a question, but it’s exciting anyway: as of the beginning of the spring 2017 semester, I will officially be declared as an English and History major in the College of Liberal Arts at Penn State University. It’s red-tape and form-filling-out technicalities, I know, but it feels nice to have it official. In addition to declaring both of my majors, I’ve also formally submitted my Intent to Pursue A Specialty form indicating my choice for Literary and Cultural Studies. On a less official note, I’ve also decided on a personal specialty: Modernist studies, particularly Modernist poetry.
In Which An English Major Goes Off Topic
It seems, no matter how hard I try, poetry is something I cannot, for the life of me, escape. Though, if I’m being honest, I don’t really want to anymore. Last semester I took a course on 20th century British and Irish poetry and I enjoyed it. What began as a last resort became a genuine interest. At the end of last semester, though, I wasn’t quite willing to say I loved poetry. Much of my out-of-class time was spent educating myself on poetry terms just to keep pace with the course material. So, like it or not, I ended last semester with a fairly decent understanding of poetics. This semester I scheduled a Modernist Literature course for two reasons: my favorite literary movement is Modernism and the professor for the course came highly recommended by my brother. Like other 400 level literary surveys at Penn State, this one covered poetry as well as prose. I knew that when I scheduled the course, yet I assumed that, like other literary surveys, it would touch only briefly on poetry. Instead, an entire half of the class was devoted to an in depth study of Modernist poetry from Yeats to Williams and nearly everyone in between.
The professor for the class specializes in Modernist poetry and has, on multiple occasions during the prose portion of the semester, reminded us that he is “a poetry guy” and “prose is basically a necessary evil” for him. I think the reason most people, myself included, shy away from poetry at first is because it is so different from anything else. In previous classes, and even in high school, poetry felt more like a chore than an actual literary genre. For instance, in a 200 level lit class last semester, my professor admitted that he really didn’t understand poetry. Should the syllabus not have required the inclusion of some poetry, he would have avoided it altogether.
Poetry is different, I grant you that, but I reject the notion that it is “impossible” to understand. Poetry reminds me a lot of learning French. Initially, everything is gibberish because there’s a different sentence structure, a different accent, and even a different alphabet in so far as most English words don’t have accents on them. However, once you’ve learned the structure, the accent, the alphabet, it’s not so scary or strange. In fact, it’s kind of cool. Poetry is essentially the same. There’s a different structure (verses, lines, stanzas, couplets, octaves, sestets, what have you), there’s a different accent (rhyme, rhythm, enjambment, caesura, etc.), and there’s a different alphabet (iambs, trochees, spondees, dactyls, and so on). Approaching poetry without any background knowledge is hard, it’s a lot like trying to read a sentence in a language you don’t know.
I realize why I didn’t understand or appreciate poetry when I was introduced to it in high school. In a setting where so much of the course is dependent on literature; prose, essays, novels, drama, etc. and where students rarely greet those things with enthusiasm there isn’t time to spend on teaching the language behind poetry just so that students can understand one poem to meet syllabus requirements. Instead, students get the crash course and the class moves on. I think, though, that this does an enormous disservice to poetry and to the students who have the chance to learn it. I don’t fault the teachers or the professors in this failure. I recognize the restrictions of the learning environment as the primary source of the problem and I understand that isn’t ever the educator’s fault. In an ideal world, poetry would be taught in a relaxed circle-style discussion that didn’t have a time limit or a grade attached to it. Poetry works best when it is explored in a setting open to discussion, interpretation, and immersion. You just can’t recreate that in a high school class room easily.
I should qualify a previous statement. Poetry is still accessible without knowing the “language.” In my Modernist class this semester, there was very little talk of actual poetic terms. Rather, the discussion centered on the meaning of the poem, the purpose, the style. This worked because my professor emphasized the importance of actually engaging with the poem in order to get anything from it. To read it once in your head, declare the meaning lost on you, and move on is to miss the point entirely. And, sure, looking closer at a poem can easily turn into “tying it to a chair to beat the answers out of it” (thank you Mr. Collins), but I’m not encouraging that either. There is a happy medium that exists when you take pause and re-read the poem, OUT LOUD because poetry is a vocal medium, and then take another moment to ruminate on the aspects that confuse or interest you. Ask yourself why you like a certain line, or what the poet is trying to say with another. You can’t understand something if you simply refuse to look at it just as you can’t understand something if you force the purpose out of it.
Prose is, no, can be very passive. (Both poetry and prose have complex relationships with active and passive reading. I won’t bore you with the details so let’s just generalize for now.) There is rarely a need to stop and question the use of one word over another when reading a novel. Poetry, by contrast, is active. There is always a need to question and engage with the text in order to understand. So, when people who are used to prose read poetry, they expect something similar to the passive reading experience they get with novels. But, I ask you this: when you go to an art gallery, do you get frustrated when the paintings don’t move like they do on TV? You don’t or, at least, you shouldn’t. The same is true of prose and poetry. You cannot expect poetry to operate like prose if it isn’t prose. Yes, it is composed of words that you read just like books, but paintings and cartoon shows are both composed of drawings, aren’t they? You must meet poetry on its own terms, as a separate entity, rather than forcing it into a space where it doesn’t belong.
This is all to say, I think, that I have fallen in love with poetry. Whether I choose to focus on poetry or prose (since I am still quite besotted with books), I recognize that poetry will always be a part of my academic future in some way or another. This Modernism class I took this semester really showed me why people write and read poetry. It challenged me to get up close and personal with something I really didn’t understand. And, when I took the time to understand it, I realized that it’s actually pretty cool.
In Which an English Major Re-Focuses and Things Are Exciting
Turning back to my academics, I was incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to combine my love of poetry and my love of history this semester. In addition to Modernist Lit, I took Post-1848 European History this semester because I knew it would mold, quite nicely, with my English class. As a final assignment for this history class I had to write a research paper on some topic that related to what we covered in class. As the sly little bugger that I am, I picked a favorite poet of mine, Wilfred Owen, and researched his poetic correlation to the transition from Romanticism to Modernism in Europe because of World War I. Just yesterday I received my grade for the paper and a recommendation from that professor to present my research at the History department’s undergraduate conference next semester!
I am cautiously excited for the chance to present this paper because I poured a lot of effort and care into it and I’m so proud that it paid off. The paper was my first real foray into the kind of work I want to do in the future because it blends poetic and critical analysis with historic context. It was, quite simply, an incredibly challenging labor of love and I’m just floored that it was received so well. I am still cautious, as I mentioned before, because I know the conference means I will need to give a ten to twenty minute presentation and answer questions from a panel of history department faculty. I will also need to polish the paper and discuss it with someone in the English department which is daunting in its own right because the topic may be new (or, at least, uncommon ground) in the history department but is absolutely old news in the English department. So, I’ll need to be sure I’m bringing something original to the discussion. The entire process will be a very new experience but I’m looking forward to it.
Concerning the Title
In case you were wondering, fish don’t exist. And that, my friends, is where I will bid you adieu. If you’d like an explanation for the title, check back next week!
To hold you over until then, I encourage you to check out some poetry! Here are some poets and poems to start with:
William Carlos Williams – “Complete Destruction”
Billy Collins – “Questions About Angels”
Wilfred Owen – “S.I.W.”
Ezra Pound – “Portrait d’une Femme”
Wallace Stevens – “The Ultimate Poem is Abstract”
Walt Whitman – “O Me! O Life”
(Bonus: “A Supermarket in California” because I just love this one way too much)
Elizabeth Bishop – “One Art”
H.D. – “Oread”
Philip Larkin – “The Whitsun Weddings”
(if you don’t mind coarse language check out “This Be the Verse” and “High Windows”)
As always, I love to hear from you all, so feel free to tell me about your experiences with poetry, your favorite poets, your favorite poems, or even your least favorite! I love book recommendations and I’ve been so removed from what’s new that I would really appreciate some opinions on the what’s what of new releases. Until next week, happy reading!