QFA* #

*Questions to Frequently Ask

(1) Do I like the readings? #

University classes are ideally fun and interesting, but are not primarily designed to entertain. Learning is often difficult and cause for discomfort. Sometimes we will read things that are totally mystifying, which were written in older versions of the English language and that are therefore a bit difficult to get into. Many poems take time and repeated readings to become attuned to, but you may find that some are simply not for you. One of the best experiences you can have is to learn to appreciate something you didn’t like before, or to see a new aspect of something you do already enjoy. 1 However, we write and think best when we’re glad to spend time with our thoughts and whatever it is that we are studying. If you’re having concerns about not liking the readings for this course, here are a few things you might do:

    • Write about your alienation or distaste for a text.
    • Reach out to me and let me know about your concerns.
    • Ask a peer about their own reactions to readings, see if you can get a person who is a fan of a text to explain why they like it.
    • Find poems you do like and try to understand why.
    • Read the text multiple times. Try to understand why it was written.
    • Try to understand a text in terms of its impact on other writers.

Ideally you should ideally use a combination of these tactics to help you find value in texts that are difficult to appreciate. Never feel bad about your reactions to texts, but be careful not to dismiss something too loudly or quickly. It’s quite interesting to hear about others’ responses before coming to a more final judgment.

What am I enjoying most? #

This is a critical question, as it should be the main heuristic for choosing what to write about. The question of taste might be broken down into three components:

(1) What poems am I enjoying?

I encourage you to write your final paper on a poem or set of poems that you really like and want to spend time reading and thinking about. Keep in mind that the more you read with care and openness to others' perspectives, the more likely it is that you will develop a heightened appreciation of whatever poems you end up preferring, which will in turn make the final essay experience more meaningful.

(2) What exercises, discussions, and ideas am I drawn to?

Keeping this question in mind will help you develop a method, a research question, and a more specific analytical toolkit for approaching the poem(s) you love. Often people express a fear that analyzing a work of art will "deaden" it. You should be on the lookout for methodologies that heighten your appreciation of and interest in your topic.

(3) What aspects of writing do I feel best about?

Writing can be a fearsome and paralyzing process. Knowing what you value in writing will help you begin and sustain any complex effort. When you read over your drafts, ask yourself what is going well before jumping to self-criticism. I tend to provide feedback that highlights and amplifies strong points in your writing. Make changes in service of your strengths, not merely to "correct" a perceived weakness.

(3) What’s the purpose of this class? #

Our focus on “lyric poetry” means that you will be encouraged to read poems closely and repeatedly. Repeated reading is closely aligned with the goal of becoming comfortable with re-reading and revising your own work, which is necessary to becoming a strong writer and an empathetic, astute listener.

Poetry is a particularly keen source of knowledge and pleasure for writers. The artifice and extremity of poetic language helps produce insights about how language works and what its capacities are more generally.

Poems can and do cover pretty much every topic under the sun. Everyone should be able to find some poem or poet who effectively engages with extra-poetic interests. As a freshman, one of your main goals this year is to figure out what to major in, and I hope this course will guide you in that process by giving you the latitude to seek out poems that bring you closer to your personal ambitions.

It’s hard to read poetry alone, and to find time for reading anything in this careful and iterative sense. Taking a writing course on reading poetry will provide a special framework for engaging with something that is important and powerful but difficult to access.

(4) What’s my role in this class? #

We’re here to learn from each other, and participate in a poetry-reading and writing community. Going to class and entering group discussions should not feel totally separate from whatever thoughts you may be having inside your own head. Writing doesn’t have to be a private process.

The specifics of your role in this community are for you to determine. You might ask yourself some sub-questions, such as, “What makes the study of poetry compelling?” “How is poetry “useful” in other domains of knowledge and innovation?” “What’s my relationship to poetry?” “What kinds of writing do you want to produce in the future?”

While the instructor may be the primary leader of the course, he is not the sole arbiter of ideas. Everyone has views that are unique and interesting; everyone is capable of leading discussions and influencing the direction of the course.

Notes #

[1] "Acquired tastes and the pleasures of imitation" by William Flesch ↩

There’s a pleasure in the experience of conversion. Wittgenstein writes (of psychoanalysis) that when we are disinclined to accept something, we are also inclined to accept it. Why? Not because disinclination is repression of desire, but because desire comes from the overcoming of disinclination. The pleasure is one of discovery and novelty, if not in the object (how boring Clarissa is!) then in the self (how riveting it is!). We don’t see differently, but we alter our relation to seeing. That’s a second order experience worth having.

Second-order? Even on the receptive side, art is the experience of imitation, and imitation (cf. Roger Caillois, who argues that seeing itself is a mode of imitation, an assimilation of the sole to the visual field it projects itself into)—imitation is the most basic experience of experience that there is, and the most aesthetically intense. Acquired taste is as basic and as intense as it gets.

Last update: 5/22/2023
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