Conceptualizing Difference

Note: This post is mostly for future reference: something I can point students to if this topic comes up in class (as it sometimes does), although comments are of course welcome.

One of the features of our current age is a breakdown in representation. A few decades ago we were comfortable bunching people into various groups and representing them in various ways: “Americans believe such-and-such,” or “Japanese think in such-and-such a way.” Of course, this wasn’t limited to national groupings, we would say “East Coasters are such-and-such,” “women are such-and-such,” “men are such-and-such,” “Californians are such-and-such,” etc. But in our current age we tend to view this totalizing or essentializing impulse with increasing skepticism. After all, there is a huge amount of variation between individuals. Even neighbors or members of the same family have different priorities, belief sets or tastes. How can something that claims to represent a huge group of people, like “Americans” or “Japanese,” possibly be valid? Think of the fairly simple statement “Americans like cheese.” We might recognize that a lot of US cuisine features cheese, or that per capita cheese consumption in the US is higher than some other countries. But at the same time, we realize that not everyone who is American likes cheese, and we each probably even know several cheese haters ourselves. Therefore we have increasingly come to realize that such representative, totalizing statements are invalid, that even small groups are not uniform, and that we’re all defined individually.

Solving Poetry

There is an article by Andrew Simmons over at The Atlantic about the importance of teaching poetry. Most of the article advocates teaching more poetry in schools, which I wholeheartedly agree with. One section, however, takes issue with the approach to teaching it:

Even the in-class disembowelment of a poem’s meaning can diminish the personal, even transcendent, experience of reading a poem. Billy Collins characterizes the latter as a “deadening” act that obscures the poem beneath the puffed-up importance of its interpretation. In his poem “Introduction to Poetry,” he writes:  “all they want to do is tie the poem to a chair with rope/and torture a confession out of it./They begin beating it with a hose/to find out what it really means.”

The point of reading a poem is not to try to “solve” it. Still, that quantifiable process of demystification is precisely what teachers are encouraged to teach students, often in lieu of curating a powerful experience through literature. The literature itself becomes secondary, boiled down to its Cliff’s Notes demi-glace. I haven’t wanted to risk that with the poems that enchanted me in my youth.

As as someone who both appreciates and teaches poetry, I have to disagree with this. Analyzing a poem does not detract from the aesthetic enjoyment or emotional resonance one receives from reading it; in fact, it allows readers to appreciate it on a new, additional level. I can’t count the number of poems I’ve read through without interest, only to realize hours or days later that a close reading reveals something really interesting going on, making me appreciate its beauty in a way I did not before. I’ve never understood those who insist that approaching art critically somehow destroys appreciation of it. Is poetry really so frail that it can only remain beautiful if left unexamined? And teaching a critical approach to poetry is especially important, since students consume huge amounts of poetry (in the form of popular music), usually uncritically.