Tuesday, September 07, 2004

On the Challenges of Reading and Responding to Poetry

By now you've all figured out that reading and interpreting poetry is demanding. Poetry is hard work. And this is an advanced course in it. You are right to note that reading poetry means you sometimes have to reach outside your received knowledge so to grasp something different or new. Poetry is one of the most challenging genres for students of literary endeavor.

Critics have long noted this, and a place to begin to understand how and why might be with Samuel Taylor Cooleridge. In his notion of readers employing a "willing suspension of disbelief," Cooleridge begins to convey what it takes to enter into reading and interpretation in their unusual and challenging rhetorical situations, which in turn is to be met with what might seem unusual means such as looking up terms and references in other sources, or discussing the finer points or symbolics and implications of terms and historical references. When challenged to move their thinking outside of their familiar comfort zones or unquestioned beliefs, readers, Cooleridge implies, can willingly let go of their disbelief--they can hold it at bay, "suspend" it, so to enter into the new or unfamiliar ground of a given literacy or literary work. Poetry is one place where this "willing suspension of disbelief" is most useful because poetry continually demands that readers be active in the creation and understanding of poetic work. Ask Baudelaire, who, when faced with readerly complacency and passivity, met his readers with insults: "Readers, you hypocrites!" (cf. the infamous letter from "Flowers of Evil" that T.S. Eliot quotes at the starting line of "The Wasteland").

Contemporary poetry, especially the poetry we are studying in the online venue of poetry blogging, makes the Cooleridge notion even more exigent, and the demands of poetry more available than ever. To that end, I direct you to Eileen's response at length, written directly to the letter Josh Reed has written.

Poetry, I think I mentioned on the first day of class--especially contemporary poetry--is very demanding. It requires devotion, even love, from the reader. And no little dialogue, as well. The challenge is terrific, and requires the reader to do some extra work. It's a cognitive work of love. Strong writers of poetry are also strong readers, reading continuously, and widely. That is one thing much of contemporary poetry has in common with the long tradition of poetry and poetics in western culture. If poetry is your business (and if you are in this course it is for now), then you get to know as much about it and what affects it, as you can.

And hey--aside from all this energetic discussion of critical perspectives, poetry and its readers are even something to go ahead and have some fun with! Many of you wrote witty and fun poems last week: do check out some of these on your blogs that you've posted so far.

In all, you are finding this a challenge, which makes me very pleased--it means you have room to learn. Keep on.



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