January 16, 2013

Life Among the Bears

I am halfway through my second week at Lenoir-Rhyne University, whose mascot is the Bears. Our poetry workshop kicked off with looking at some of my favorite contemporary poems, such as Meg Kearney's "Creed" (anaphora and other rhetorical ordering principles) and Natasha Trethewey's "Mississippi" (explaining the ghazal form). We looked at Henry Taylor's "Artichoke":


"If poetry did not exist, would you
have had the wit to invent it?" 
-Howard Nemerov

He had studied in private years ago 
the way to eat these things, and was prepared 
when she set the clipped green globe before him. 
He only wondered (as he always did 
when he plucked from the base the first thick leaf, 
dipped it into the sauce and caught her eye
as he deftly set the velvet curve against 
the inside edges of his lower teeth
and drew the tender pulp towards his tongue
while she made some predictable remark
about the sensuality of this act
then sheared away the spines and ate the heart)
what mind, what hunger, first saw this as food.

-H.T. (from The Flying Change)

...They immediately fixated on that parenthetical phrase, of course, and the way it changes the tone of the scene. I asked if they'd ever seen a similar move in a poem. Then I showed them how it echoes something John Keats did two hundred years earlier:

This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calm’d–see here it is–
I hold it towards you.

-J.K. (1795-1821)

That's what I love about teaching, those little a-ha moments.

This week I came on strong with the craft vocabulary. I admit, John Hollander isn't the friendliest voice for beginning students. (He's like Waldorf and Statler combined, if Waldorf and Statler insisted on bickering in iambic pentameter.) But I'm a big believer that workshoppers are always talking about things in loosey-goosey terms when there are wonderful words--caesura, assonance, spondee, stichic, chiasmus--designed to articulate our aesthetic impressions. If I can inspire even one student out of fourteen to adopt the vocabulary of form in talking about free verse, to understand that the two modes exist on a continuum, I'll be thrilled. 

I was met with glassy stares by the time we got to ottava rimaThey're antsy to turn to their own poems.  "I gotta give you vegetables first," I said, "before the cotton candy and funnel cake." At one point, I chanted the "Pat-a-cake" nursery rhyme (to demonstrate accentual meter), and I seriously considered tap-dancing in anapestic tetrameter. In for a penny, in for a pound. 

Hickory has its charms. My welcoming party included some fun, quirky conversations; never again, when buying chairs, will I settle for less eight-way hand-tied upholstery. (The things you learn in a furniture town.) I am exploring a spectrum of North Carolina beers. UMI, the Japanese restaurant, continues to amaze me--my new favorite dish is the vegetable nimono, which includes thick slices of gobo (mountain carrot) and lotus root simmered in a dashi broth. 

The roads are bizarrely tricky. In addition to quadrants (NE, NW, etc) there are numbered streets, numbered avenues, and numbered "Avenue Place"-s, often all three intersecting within feet of each other. There is Lenoir-Rhyne Boulevard, which seems like a convenient main road--up until the intersection where Lenoir-Rhyne's campus is within sight-line, at which point it refuses to let you enter and veers off to the right instead. Bears must have excellent senses of direction but I, mere poet, get lost and turn around and get lost again. Luckily I'm used to it. I am, after all, also a DC girl.

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