If you see a whole thing - it seems that it's always beautiful. Planets, lives... But up close a world's all dirt and rocks. And day to day, life's a hard job, you get tired, you lose the pattern. - Ursula K. LeGuin

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Another Reason Why I Love My Students

I'm working with one of my doctoral students on an analysis of my data that will eventually turn into a paper. I'm very excited about this analysis as it involves poems. I asked this student if she wanted to work on it with me because I knew she had published a poem and she made a joke about a haiku in a meeting. Other students I've tried to entice have been scared off by the thought of poetry. (What have we done to make poetry so terrifying in our culture?)

The other day we were talking about what it feels like to write poetry and I said that there are parts that are very similar, for me, to analyzing numerical data or to solving logic problems. There is a reductionism in poetry that doesn't happen with prose. There is also a satisfying sense of problem-solving that may happen for fiction writers but doesn't happen for me when I write fiction.

It was a fun conversation. The kind I like to have with students. The kind that got me into academia so I could have them on a regular basis. Afterwards she sent me a copy of the Nobel Lecture by Wislawa Szymborska. In it is this:
This is why I value that little phrase "I don't know" so highly. It's small, but it flies on mighty wings. It expands our lives to include the spaces within us as well as those outer expanses in which our tiny Earth hangs suspended. If Isaac Newton had never said to himself "I don't know," the apples in his little orchard might have dropped to the ground like hailstones and at best he would have stooped to pick them up and gobble them with gusto. Had my compatriot Marie Sklodowska-Curie never said to herself "I don't know", she probably would have wound up teaching chemistry at some private high school for young ladies from good families, and would have ended her days performing this otherwise perfectly respectable job. But she kept on saying "I don't know," and these words led her, not just once but twice, to Stockholm, where restless, questing spirits are occasionally rewarded with the Nobel Prize.

Poets, if they're genuine, must also keep repeating "I don't know." Each poem marks an effort to answer this statement, but as soon as the final period hits the page, the poet begins to hesitate, starts to realize that this particular answer was pure makeshift that's absolutely inadequate to boot. So the poets keep on trying, and sooner or later the consecutive results of their self-dissatisfaction are clipped together with a giant paperclip by literary historians and called their "oeuvre" ...
Which so hits the nail on the head for me.


Amanda said...

Poetry is scary because it's presented as this thing that 'you have to be really good at it otherwise don't even bother trying.' So, it's not very accessible to students to say the least.

However, I really like that passage from the Nobel Lecture. I'm now going to have to go to the Nobel site, so I can find the whole thing.

Anonymous said...

I have never thought of poetry like that, but you're right... it is reductionist. I don't write it, but I do love to read it... I like to read things that have rhythm, whether poetry or prose.

Julie said...

YES!!!!!!!!!!!! I LOVE IT when teachers from scientific disciplines introduce poetry to their students. Teacher, you are AWESOME!!!

I get excited. But truly, this makes me turn flips. If you have a student who's afraid of poetry, introduce him/her to one of the beat poets. Or the small presses. The Outside Writers' Guild. These are full of writers with accessible voices. Younger people (and a lot of fogies like me) tend to really connect with the Outlaw Bible of American Poetry. These are great ways to reach students to teach them the enjoyment of poetry.

Of course, there's form and sweat and all of the other stuff that goes with it, but they don't need to get steeped in the actual work at first. Sheesh...

For students who want to pursue poetry as a career, tell them they'll make more money working at McDonald's. If that doesn't scare them away, then they're probably for real poets.

But now, what I really meant to say is how much I love the lecture. I DON'T KNOW is awesome. When I first started to grow as a person was when I first realized how much I don't know. What a good thing to teach students, along with the desire to find out.

Great post!