The Well Educated Mind
When I say this goes back to basics, I mean way way way back.
The subtitle of this book is "a guide to the classical education you never had." The book introduces the classics in philosophy, the novel, autobiography and memoir, drama, history and politics, and poetry all in a matter of 432 pages.
I picked up this book back in 2005, when I was still teetering on what I wanted to do for a graduate degree (creative writing? literature? poetics? maybe even just education?). It was good reading before I took my first masters level class at UMaine -- just the one class because I decided to test the "poetics" concentration instead of just jumping in (see first post). It was a great little read to prep my head for before I went back into the collegiate academic world. I had been working as a high school teacher and assistant librarian for the years previous.
In the poetry section, Bauer states, "All poems are about God, love, or depression" (308). Yikes was my first reaction to this. It seemed so reductive. However, I kept reading, keeping in mind this was a text meant to open up a non-reader of poetry to the idea of getting into the classics, and therefore it was to be taken as a "bare bones" guide. I am glad I did continue reading, too, because Bauer's further points are worth reading.
She points out that the word "poem" is an impossibly broad word - it can be applied to a work that is "sensibly direct","obscurely allusive" or "just plain perplexing" and offers snippets of poems as examples. She also gives examples of what things poems can do, including "chronicling the past", "telling a story", "reveal a poet's developing sense of self", and "bounce dialog between speakers" (309).
She then outlines how a poem is read using an apt metaphor that I definitely see myself using as a teacher of poetry, which is why I include her text in this discussion. She says, "poetry is like a periscope..."
the poem does not imprint itself directly on the watcher's eye; it bounces from one mirror to another first, and each mirror becomes a part of the image that eventually strikes the eye's lens (309).Bauer continues the metaphor, explaining that the first mirror is the poet. Because in a poem "the poet never disappears...a poem is an expression of the poet's presence" (309). She juxtaposes a passage from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice with Wordsworth's "Lines Written in Early Spirng", both of which take place in an eighteenth century grove. The excerpt has Elizabeth Bennet running into Mr. Darcy and taking a letter from him. "Jane Austen is herself nowhere to be seen" (310). In the "Lines Written in Early Spring", she states we see the grove through Wordsworth's eyes, "[h]is sensations, his perceptions and his conclusions are woven right through the fabric of the scene...and although we see Darcy and Elizabeth through Jane Austen's eyes, we are not made aware of it, as we are in the Wordsworth poem" (310).
Immediately I thought of exceptions to this rule but even in these exceptions -- like persona poems -- that element of being "made aware" of seeing something through the eyes of someone else remains.
The second mirror in the periscope metaphor is the method of presentation, "a poem is only a poem as long as it retains its original words" (311). Novels and memoirs can be adapted to plays and films but a poem with different words is not longer itself. The "form, function and meaning" are interdependent - they are "all one"; in a poem "the language is the meaning" (311).
Bauer makes the point that "poems are not characterized by any poetic technique in particular, since conventions of poetic example change from century to century" (312). For example "The Iliad and Howl are both self-conscious about language, although in wildly dissimilar fashion" (313).
This is very basic information that most poets know intrinsically; however, being able to articulate these points clearly helps when looking to explore them further.