Thursday, 2 February 2012

That Poetry Class

20th Century British and American Poetry
A Snippy Moment 

I'm sure you have better things to do than to read my rambles on the way a straight-backed professor runs his class but I'm going to do this anyway. You might want to do something more interesting, such as sharpen pencils or wash behind your ears instead, I'll understand.

I know also I said that the next post would be on An English Christmas, as a counterpoint to An American Thanksgiving, but since my photos desperately trying to avoid being uploaded, I decided to skip over that for now and launch into the new term. I will come back to Christmas and New Years though - I owe it to the 22ft tree and Zoe CJ to mention it.

In the mean time, I wanted to talk about poetry. This blog started with several ideas in mind - to let my parents and family know that I was alive on a regular basis, to try and construct a narrative about the life of an exchange student, to talk about my ideas (creative and academic) and then finally to simply see if I could. I admit, I haven't been the most successful when it comes to maintaining this thing - I constantly forget about it, start writing and end up boring myself, start reading and realise I'm likely boring you... etc. And I've probably told you a tonne about being here - in terms of the night life and the girls of 304 - but it's not like I've reviewed a night out at East End or critiqued the varying attitudes toward the Greek System. I've told you about meeting people, about feeling new but I've avoided mentioning anything about homesickness or inter-room bitching, or the stress of trying to organise a dozen disparate groups into a single Spring Break plan. I've also completely neglected to put up any ideas whatsoever - except my brief narration of The Epiphany Moment.

Now, with George Lensing as my teacher, I feel obligated to rectify this situation.

Lensing is described on 'ratemyprof' as having 'no respect for his student's opinions', choosing only 'his favourites works' and having select 'favourite students'. He's also described as a 'brilliant, well-read teacher' but a 'task master'. He sounds like my sort of teacher. I like the challenge of trying to impress them, of having to try hard to prove that you have the right to sit in their class and soak up the knowledge that we haven't leant yet. Part of the reason that I loved having JDHorton as a tutor in Edinburgh was because he was so brilliant: he seemed to enjoy teaching us (as long as we all turned up...) and encouraged us to improve our writing, our analysis, our knowledge. He asked us to give as much as we could and if that was more one week and less another, so be it, there were rewards and debate. Perfect. I think we all thrived in his class. This guy... well I can see why he has such mixed reviews.

He's enthusiastic, incredibly well-read, wonderfully opinionated and I want to impress him. I don't know why people have described him as unapproachable because I think he seems like a genuinely nice guy. Having said that, I find it baffling that a teacher of a class aimed at upperclassmen would set punitive 1000-word papers (I'm going to ask for an extension). Similarly, there's a boy he keeps asking to read who reminds me of that moment in Sense & Sensibility when Edward Ferrars ploddingly reads a sonnet only to be passionately reprimanded by Marianne for being too 'sedate'. I wonder if that kid's a 'favourite'.

I think the thing that bothered me most was last week's Wilfred Owen seminar.

Wilfred Owen, of course, has been part of most British school curricula for years - and most literature students will have studied his poetry at least once, if not four or five times in the course of their studies. I first studied him for GCSE, then the IB, then briefly in First year and in depth again in Second year. I guess we also have Remembrance Day and how many of us had to read poems out in Assembly, stand up in Chapel or attend a Service with our grim-faced grandparents? We generally know a great deal about WWI and Sassoon and Owen and Brook and their influence on the 20th Century. We also know facts about WWI: the number of people killed in the Somme, the amount of money spent on new tanks, the influence of machine guns, the use of trench warfare, the policies of General Haig, the treatment of PTSD etc. So for class I retrieved all my notes on all the poems of Wilfred Owen, I dug up my old essays - including my interpretation of Owen's work against Joseph Conrad's on the theme of Naturalism - and I rewrote a bunch of notes on the general themes of WWI poetry. 

My first realisation was that Americans view war quite differently to us. I can think of few people who believe that Owen's poetry is about anything other than bitterness and reprimand. What else can we take from the heavily ironic final lines of 'The Old Man and the Young' or 'Dulce et Decorum est'? When you read 'Mental Cases', can the images of the 'purgatorial shadows' as they 'slob there relish' be read without cringing or at least evoking a sense of horror? Yet when we studied 'Disabled' alongside the overly cited 'Anthem for Doomed Youth' and 'Dulce et Decorum est', between the students and the teacher there seemed to emerge a strange naivety. Furthermore, Owen's collection famously begins by saying that it is 'not about poetry'. It is about war. This is how I came to write about the role of the witness and the influence of Naturalism on war poets such as Sassoon and Owen last year. I can see why people may find it a strange claim to make on an anthology and was eager to discuss this when the topic arose. So when we begin I have a lot to say and the points I make are, at first, listened to with an ear that's half-cocked in my direction. Then they begin to suggest that the 'drawing down of blinds' is a symbol of the acceptance felt by the people at home over the 'funeral' given to 'those that die as cattle'. My hand shoots into the air, 

"Don't you think," I say when called on, "that whilst the image is a peaceful one in contrast to the first stanza, there is a sense that just as the 'hasty orisons' are given by 'wailing shells', the idea that a 'patient mind' and 'girls pallor' can act as the 'flowers' and 'pall' for the dead, as well that that final image of the blinds... well... don't you think that those lines can also be read with a sense of irony? Can we not read them with a sense of the fickleness of those at home, a reflection of their naivety as they don't seem to understand the grim reality of war?"

"No. I don't think this is a bitter poem." Is the response.

I don't think

Seriously? That's the great rebuttal? I couldn't quite believe it. Not because the point had been completely shot down but because he refused to even engage with it. There are a great many reasons to interpret that poem in either direction, I was acknowledging that his word had merit so why not refute mine? 

I think what I'm trying to say is... I think this class is fascinating and I think Dr Lensing is brilliant, however, I wish there was more room for actually debate. There is nothing more frustrating than being told that you're wrong without being given any reason for being told as much. The distinction between Edinburgh and UNC is astounding but surely that should be beneficial - a collection of differing opinions, isn't that one of the most important things to have in a class discussion? I don't want to be agreed with, I enjoy playing the devil's advocate and that's partly the reason why I find this class so underwhelming at the moment. I'd rather argue with someone about a particular interpretation of the meter than solemnly agree with everyone else let alone listen to stories about meeting Seamus Heaney that offer me no insight to his writing. 

Well my rant is over. I am inspired to actually focus more on my writing and reading now so I suppose that's something to consider. I promise to write something less petulant next time. 


Je serai poète et toi poésie,

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