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On Teaching Poetry.

Hollander, John. 1997. The Work of Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press. $17.50 sc. 318 pp.

Martin, Robert K. 1998. The Homosexual Tradition in American Poetry: An Expanded Edition. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press. $18.95 sc. 279 pp.

Upton, Lee. 1998. The Muse of Abandonment: Origin, Identity, Mastery in Five American Poets. London: Associated University Press. $32.50 hc. 162 pp.

Every literature teacher has heard the collective groan emanating from the classroom when they first introduce a unit on poetry. Fortunately, three recent books offer different strategies to help teachers transform this groan into lyric appreciation and help them break free from the pedagogical familiarity of prose. The poetry covered in these books reminds us of how rhythm, rhyme, meaningful neologisms and onomatopoeias can enrich the classroom experience. However, in case teachers themselves need a little nudge to get back in the habit of teaching poetry, the three authors discussed here not only display an infectious enthusiasm for teaching poetry (readers will be inspired to dig up old copies of Leaves of Grass), but their critical approaches cover a pedagogically useful range. Furthermore, the poetry they discuss runs the gamut of canonical and lesser known poets and of the work of late-nineteenth century poets to contemporary American writers.

The association of the five poets treated in Lee Upton's The Muse of Abandonment--Charles Wright, Russell Edson, Jean Valentine, James Tate, and Louise Gluck--might at first seem strange. Edson writes prose poems while the others write verse; his and Wright's work can be quite comic, Gluck's more downbeat. Nevertheless, Upton does an admirable job of linking them thematically. At a basic level, these writers wrestle with their personal subjectivity. For example, Tate's travelers are constantly moving, "...indicating a struggle against the petrification of sensibility and identity" while Gluck's poems "experiment with a regression into oblivion--an ultimate release from ego boundaries" (99, 120). Although she does not use the conventional definition of "muse," Upton points out that all of these poets are inspired by abandonment and thus their work "is inscribed with the double meanings that attach themselves to abandonment: the powerlessness of being rendered subject ... and, at the same time, the experience of exuberant release from the control of others" (12). Yet these poets demonstrate more than thematic commonalties; they all rethink confessional poetry in the light of postmodern critical theory and destabilize conventional reading habits. Upton notes that in Tate's case "autobiography is artifice that ought to be revealed as such. He does not reject cliches of autobiography...so much as use them as launchpads for further investigations of new language contexts" (99).

The greatest value of this book lies in the individual readings of contemporary poets with whom teachers are too often unfamiliar. Upton's book provides reading techniques that help us analyze these poets' work. For example, in order to read her work we must recognize that Valentine "has thinned connective passages and omitted logical connections in her poetry" (76) whereas Tate's work "actively upends identities....The actual work of the poems in their demasculinizing of male characters and caricaturing of heterosexual desires, in the voicing of need, weakness, and contingency, boldly counters patriarchal posturings of expertise" (98). Upton's book provides the initial material needed to enable the poetry teacher to gain some mastery over these five American poets in order to introduce their work to students.

Upton's readings are insightful and since each chapter addresses the work of one poet, the book lends itself to easy use in the classroom. The instructor who chooses to use these essays would nonetheless need to supplement them with some materials: the poems to be studied (Upton only quotes pordons of the poems she discusses, never the entire poem) and if the chapters onValentine or Gluck have been selected, a brief discussion of Julia Kristeva's theories since Upton makes reference to Kristevan maternal loss and abjection but rather quickly glosses it. I found the best chapter to be "Cruel Figures: The 'And-Forms' of Russell Edson." Perhaps because Edson's prose poems are less well known (he is the one poet of the group who is less firmly entrenched in "official" poetry culture; the majority of his books are out-of-print, and he leads a rather reclusive life), this is a discovery of sorts. Edson's poetry would be a welcome addition to any class or unit on the prose poem or on surrealism. Upton reports that in Edson's work "A raincoat performs an autopsy; a woman gives birth to a toad from her armpit; a man has sexual intercourse with a bicycle" (54-55). Edson's poetry is violent and physical, yet never gratuitous, and often very funny. Language provides the source of this humor; the characters in Edson's prose poems "have no sense of a reality that might accept subtlety or fluency in naming or renaming ... They only know that they must somehow pursue fragments of language. Yet they haven't the power fully to understand the ways in which they are used by language. The result is that they are compelled to reproduce the cruelties that have defined them" (66).

The second book covered here is the expanded edition of The Homosexual Tradition in American Poetry, a text from the first generation of studies that would ultimately help to establish queer studies. First published in 1979, Robert K. Martin has added a short preface to this edition, in addition to an eighteen-page final chapter. In the first part of this new chapter Martin addresses his omission of African-American gay poets from the original version of The Homosexual Tradition. He does this by situating the verse of Langston Hughes, Marlon Riggs and Reginald Shepherd within a history of homosexual poetry and, more specifically, in relation to Whitman. The second part of this short chapter addresses the AIDS poetry of Paul Monette, Rafael Campo, and Mark Doty. This last chapter is cursory, more akin to a sneak preview of a possible upcoming study than to the final chapter of a book (Mardn devotes less than three pages to Shepherd and one paragraph to Monette), but it serves to point up clearly both the orig inal version's strengths and weaknesses. Martin made a questionable editorial decision when he chose to add the new chapter at the very end of the original book, following the bibliography and even the index of the 1979 edition. Although this structural choice may have been forced by understandable material constraints, the section of the book on African-American poets and AIDS poetry appears to be marginalized, just as these poets' voices have always been excluded.

That caveat notwithstanding, The Homosexual Tradition in American Poetry has been and remains an important book. As a pedagogical tool, this book offers two distinct uses. Most obviously, it serves as a handbook for gay male poetry. Martin has written a genealogy of gay American poets that takes Whitman as the founding father, but includes the poets of the academic or genteel tradition (lesser known poets like Fitz-Greene Halleck and Bayard Taylor, in addition to Santayana) and Hart Crane. In addition to the newly added last chapter, chapter four of the original edition gives short analyses of how seven contemporary poets (Allen Ginsberg, Duncan, Gunn, Edward Field, Howard, Merrill and Alfred Corn) poetically inscribe themselves into the tradition whose forefathers are Whitman and Crane. For example, Martin notes that "Whitman's influence [on Field] may be seen in particular in the natural, simple world that Field admires and which he locates, in Stand up, Friend, With Me, in Greece" (191), and he points out the clear intertextual references to Whitman and Crane found in Corn's "The Bride, Palm Sunday, 1973" (209-10). But rather than simply pointing out the homosexual motifs in Whitman's or Crane's or Santayana's poetry, or, more importantly, tracing the homosexual tradition between them, Martin shows how these poetic motifs and concerns explain how the poem works, as in the collapsing of the seeing subject and the viewed other in "Song of Myself," for example, which emblematizes Whitman's "democratic vision" so well.

Secondly, this new edition offers a useful case study providing students with an archeology of literary criticism, which makes clear how political and humanitarian concerns become integrated into literary criticism, and, more importantly, how historical development can affect the ways we understand texts. In the newly added chapter "The Future is Here," Martin writes that the original book "represents the enthusiasm and political energy of the 1970s in its optimistic vision of a transformed sexuality" (262). An example of this original utopian conception comes early in the original text; Martin writes that "anonymous sexuality is an important way-station on the path to the abolition of distinctions of age, class, beauty, and gender....It is perhaps at this juncture that the implications of [Whitman's] perspective become most revolutionary" (20). Although in our current era of AIDS this statement and Martin's oft-quoted reference to steam baths might seem to some politically or ethically irresponsible, this b ook nonetheless demonstrates that as contexts change, so does literary criticism. Martin originally illustrated how Whitman himself was pressured to de-emphasize the "adhesive" quality of his verse. (Whitman used the terms "manly friendship" and "adhesiveness" to signify what we would call homosexual or homoerotic.) Martin explains that prior to its publication Whitman altered the poem "Once I Pass'd Through a Populous City"--the work that gave rise to the legend that Whitman had a common-law wife in New Orleans. He changed the original line "'I remember only the man who wandered with me there for love of me' to 'I remember only a woman I casually met there who detain'd me for love of me'" (4). Martin shows that Whitman's context is no longer ours, but he also makes clear that neither is the book's original late nineteen-seventies context.

In the original text Martin presented an idealistic vision of the transformational powers of Whitman's poetry; he writes that one possible avenue to the development of a society without oppression might come from Whitman "for whom homosexuality meant a heightened political awareness, a sensitivity to the situation of women in a patriarchal society, and a belief that a homosexual society, freed from the impulse to power, might devote itself to pleasure" (xviii). Needless to say, this interpretation has been eclipsed by the contemporary physical, psychological, and social ravages of AIDS. Nonetheless, Martin's analysis of Whitman's poetry remains entirely convincing, and it allows us a much more thorough understanding of Whitman's utopian conception of democracy. Furthermore, this book demonstrates to what degree literary criticism, like the poetry it takes as its object of study, is a product of historical processes and social change. Finally, students can see how aesthetic concerns can actively participate i n meaningful social dialogue.

A quite different approach appears in The Work of Poetry by John Hollander, a collection of essays that spans twenty years. The work is divided into three sections: "Poetic Substances," "Poetic Experiences," and the bulk of the book, "The Work of Poets." The latter is comprised of eleven close readings of poems and general overviews of specific works by Whitman, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Lewis Carroll, Jean Ingelow, George Meredith, Trumbull Stickney, the contributors to the Spoon River Anthology, Marianne Moore, Robert Penn Warren, Elizabeth Bishop, May Sarton, and Geoffrey Hill. Three of the essays were written expressly for The Work of Poetry while the other twenty essays previously appeared in journals and books or were presentations printed here for the first time.

Hollander is both a poet and an English professor at Yale University and brings these two voices to bear on the subjects at hand. The poet's voice is clearly audible in the clean, imaginative prose, as in this comment on the line from Elizabeth Bishop's Geography III, "A yesterday I find almost impossible to lift": Hollander responds, "Yes, if yesterdays are to be carried as burdens, one would agree; but even yesteryears can themselves, if one is imaginatively fortunate, become monuments to be climbed, to be looked about and even ahead from, to be questioned and pondered themselves" (281). The eleven pieces in this third part of The Work of Poetry are the most pedagogically useful essays in the book. They provide brief biographical sketches of the lesser known poets like Stickney (a revisionist Romantic who died in 1904 at the age of 30) and the contemporary poet Hill, about whose difficult poetry Hollander writes, "Any good teacher could use the free verse of his 'September Song' in a classroom as examples of masterful technique; every line-break in the poem answers to some matter of precise signification" (299). Hollander's essays on the more canonical poets provide basic information as well as clear-sighted commentary on the poet and poetry in question. For example, in "Whitman's Difficult Availability" Hollander begins with some historical information concerning the first publication of Leaves of Grass and continues with a short review of the possible significances of the title itself.

Are the leaves literally the pages of books.... Or are they rather metaphors for the poems, here not the "flowers" of old anthologies, but green with newness? Are they the leaves that...served the Cumaean Sybil for her prophetic pages? ... Are they leavings--residues of the act of "singing," departures for worlds elsewhere that are always regions of here? (Hollander 1997, 178)

Having observed several themes found in Whitman's verse--openness, shame, myth--Hollander has some valuable insights into his poetic form: "Whitman adopts almost unvaryingly an end-stopped line, characteristically connected to its near companions by anaphora ... or parallel syntactic form in a ramified growth of subordinate clauses (the familiar formats of his fascinating array of modes of cataloguing)" (183). The author then gives a brief overview of Whitman's almost constant work of textual revision (he revised Leaves of Grass nine times after the initial 1855 publication) and cleverly remarks that "[t]he leaves of the book remain green and growing throughout his life" (185). These essays on individual authors or anthologies provide the poetry teacher with concise and valuable starting points (historical, thematic, stylistic, and critical) from which to begin teaching these works.

However, in the first half of The Work of Poetry, Hollander has some stern words for students. He cautions that if students don't rethink how they read and write poetry, then a whole generation of verse may be lost. In the chapter "O Heavy Verse! The Shopwork of the Workshops," Hollander shares an anecdote from his own teaching experience:

It is particularly sad to find a recent generation of ineptly rhyming clunkers--some of them pretentiously brandishing the banner of what calls itself a New Formalism--who cannot hear the relation in English ... between rhyme and stress-pattern. ... In teaching a graduate course in Spenser's Faerie Queene, I usually assign as an exercise the composition of three Spenserian stanzas....There were always students in the class (still, I'm surprised and grateful to report, a minority) whose lines simply didn't scan, and whose rhymes were merely the assonance, commonly mistaken for rhyme ... that may result from hearing only modern rock lyrics and not having rhymed verse in one's memory. Invariably, the students with tin ears were those who wrote verses and fancied themselves as .... I continue to ponder the significance of this. (Hollander 1997, 163)

Hollander's longing for the days when students memorized more verse becomes a leitmotif in the "Poetic Experiences" section of the book. In "Discovering Wallace Stevens," he talks about the post-war years when he was a university student: "in those days you could carry about a great load of remembered language, prose as well as verse--language that you lived around and with and could call up and had called up for you" (154). Or in "My Poetic Generation," he writes that "[w]e all grew up, whether in public or private schools, reciting and memorizing and hearing verse read aloud" (146). To his credit Hollander is trying to rectify this lapse in our students' memories with an anthology he published in 1997 called Committed to Memory: 100 Best Poems to Memorize.

Robert K. Martin continues to read nineteenth-century literature from the lens of gay studies, while Hollander and Upton are both active poets in addition to their work as critics. Each has published new collections of verse within the last year (Hollander's Figurehead: And Other Poems and Upton's Civilian Histories: Poems), and both continue to read their work on the poetry circuit. Perhaps because these three scholars are engaged in multiple arenas, their works are all well-rounded, fleshed-out in a way that only politically or artistically engaged scholarship can be. It is this engagement that breathes life into these critical works, which in turn infects the reader with the joy of reading and analyzing poetry.

Levy is assistant professor of French and Women's and Gender Studies at the University of Missouri, Kansas City. She has published a study on French poetry, Refiguring the Muse (1999).
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Title Annotation:Review; The Muse of Abandonment: Origin, Identity, Mastery in Five American Poets; The Homosexual Tradition in American Poetry: An Expanded Edition; The Work of Poetry
Author:Levy, Gayle
Publication:College Literature
Article Type:Book Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2001
Words:2808
Previous Article:Finding Hope in the Humanities.
Next Article:No Exit?
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