“A poem should be your dying breath.” (Strange wisdom from academic conferences…)

I want my students, every day, to see me loving and taking delight in my field. That’s why even though my teaching load is all composition right now, I still start each class by reading a poem—any poem that strikes me as worth reading that day.  I may not be teaching them literature just yet (come on, prelims!), but I am teaching word-smithing.  This semester, my students have heard Hopkins, Byron, Berry, Rossetti, Shakespeare, and even a little Sexton. Even if it has the potential to make me look a little silly (it does, I’m sure), I think it’s worth it. Students need to see their teachers love their subjects unabashedly, even at the risk of a little silliness.

When the semester starts, I give my students a definition of poetry to pay attention to as the months roll on, a definition that I think can apply to all kinds of writing: poetry is the right words, in the right order, at the right moment.   It’s a definition that is easy to remember, to the point, and gives me all sorts of in-roads for drawing their attention to how poetic language works in expository writing generally. (Sir Philip Sidney says that poetry is all “imaginative literature”—that’s a good definition, too.)

But at an academic conference a few weekends ago, I heard a definition of poetry that made me feel like I’d been teaching it all wrong: “a poem should be your dying breath,” one of the poets recounted learning from his MFA program.  If a poem you write is not worthy of being your last words, then it’s not worth writing.  I’ve been turning this over in my head—a poem should be your dying breath—all week long, and I don’t quite know what to do with it.  Is this too high of a standard for poetry?  Is it an unreachable ideal?  Is it merely a pointer toward the chief end of poetry, not necessarily the most common outcome of a poem?

I don’t consider myself a poet, but I am working to be a friend to the poet, which is one of my favorite descriptions of “literature scholar” so far.  The definition of poetry I heard last week has made me rethink how we literature researchers and teachers go about choosing our concentrations—what poets/writers do we seek to befriend on the deepest level?  Who consumes our writing, our teaching, and our books?

If we choose to be a friend to a certain poet over the course of a career, are we willing to use their words in our own dying breaths?  Scary thought, I know.  But I think there’s some truth to it: when you set out to do a PhD in a subject like English literature, and you pick a poet (or poets) to befriend, is there ever a point where you confront your willingness to carry these poets’ words to your own very last breath?  Isn’t this one of the greatest tests of whether those words are worthy of study?

I will probably shy away from using a definition like this in my classroom (“a poem should be your dying breath” is so hard to grasp conceptually! and a little morbid!).  And yet I can’t help but hold onto it in my own mind.  If I am a true friend of the poet, then I have to take the poet’s work seriously—and a dying breath is about as serious as you can get.

I think visual artists can be friends to the poets as well, like this painting by Gustave Doré (French, 1832 - 1883), titled "After the Shipwreck - Design for an illustration of Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," painted around the year 1875. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
I think visual artists can be friends to the poets as well, like this painting by Gustave Doré (French, 1832 – 1883), titled “After the Shipwreck – Design for an illustration of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” painted around the year 1875.
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
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