Unreal Nature

February 20, 2015

With a Radish

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:39 am

But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.

This is from the essay ‘On Teaching Poetry’ (2003) found in What Light Can Do: Essays on Art, Imagination, and the Natural World by Robert Hass (2012):

… When I began teaching poetry, one of my doubts about my ability to do it had to do with the fact that I was never not interested in it, and so I didn’t know how to put myself in the place of people who were bored or intimidated by it. My inclination, therefore, was not to go to the students and bring them along from my imagination of some place of trepidation or suspicion, but to assume their interest, and at Berkeley for the most part that’s been a reasonable assumption.

In talking about this to Judith, I was able to quote a haiku that I love by the nineteenth-century poet Kobayashi Issa, which goes like this — seventeen syllables in the Japanese:

…… The man pulling radishes
Pointed my way
…… With a radish.

[ … ]

… Having said all this, I should add that, beginning to teach, I came to realize that I had forgotten my own experience. It’s true that I was always interested in poetry, but it’s not true that I was never intimidated by it. I had, in high school and college, skulked around the edges of what I understood to be the great modernist masterworks by Pound and Eliot and Williams and Stevens and Moore and others — feeling their importance, catching flickers of whatever it was that poetry held and that I desired — in some of the bits of them that I could make out, and wishing to be, though in a somewhat defiant way and with somewhat mixed feelings, the sort of person who could understand them.

[ … ]

……………….. Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
There is a time for the evening under starlight,
A time for the evening under lamplight
(The evening with the photograph album).
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.

One of the traditional ways of teaching poetry is to discuss, to explicate, what Eliot is saying here to make sure that students (and the teacher) understand what’s being said, for the reason that what’s being said might be useful to them. And one can try to characterize the feeling of what’s being said. And leave it at that. In fact, in teaching poetry, that is quite often what we settle for. We hope that the deeper thing that we can’t communicate has gotten communicated, passed directly from the poem to the student reader without our aid or interference. We do what we can with content, especially if, as in this case, the content is rich, psychologically or philosophically. And we do what we can, harder but still manageable, with affect. And we leave the deeper thing in the work of art, which is also famously the most ineffable, its tone or mood, which is like a sensation of echo, which we often take away quite mutely and quietly, in the same way that people do coming out of a concert hall or a theater. In those deepest reaches of a work of art, the truth is that we mostly cannot teach.

-Julie

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