By Isaac Butler
I am currently reading Mary Oliver's A Poetry Handbook to help brush up on issues in poetry pedagogy prior to teaching a poetry creative writing unit in the fall. She has some rather interesting ideas about the teaching of poetry, particularly poetry "of the past."
Oliver notes that the cannon of Western poetry has as a barrier to entry knowledge of metrical structures and prosody. If you don't understand how meter, rhyme and classical verse forms work, you're basically missing a giant piece of the puzzle. "How much of the poem's effect is missed by students who are not really familiar with metrics and other devices of construction?" she wonders, going on to argue, "The poem is always a blending of statement and form, which is intentional and meant to be clarifying."
Oliver is no anti-canonist. She loves the history of poetry, calling it the cake on top of which the free verse era is just the icing. But she also acknowledges that metrical poets were working out of a tradition that we have moved far away from, and for an audience familiar with the rules of metrica poetry. She goes on to argue the following:
Conventionally, English and American literature are studied chronologically-- according to historical passage-- and without doubt this is the best way, as central motivations and ideas, moving from one to another, should be thought about in consecutive order. But this chronology is not so necessary for the creative writing student-- and, in fact, the presentation of metrical verse first is often so off-putting that it is worthwhile letting it rest on its tracks... later, as students become more confident, ambitious and sophisticated, [I suggest] that they move on to (or back to) the difficult patters of metrical verse.
What if we applied it to literature? What if we moved backwards from the familiar into the strange? Oliver goes to bat for the consecutive nature of ideas, but following an artist back into their influences is another perfectly valid way to journey through work. What if we flipped, say, the way survey of western drama is taught and start with Angels and end with The Oresteia? Why does the conversation have to move forward in time from the beginning?
Honestly, I ask these questions because I'm not sure of the answers. I have long had the idea of structuring a course around looking at one artist and then branching backwards through to their influences as an experiment, but I don't know what the trade offs of such a structure would be.