Thursday, July 01, 2004

Will teach Stevens for food

If I had to name three central poets of American literature, they would be Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Wallace Stevens.  Although (fortunately for me, given my area of specialization while working on my doctorate) I like all three, for me the experience of teaching Stevens is like few others.  I was reminded last night, as I talked about some Stevens poems with my American Lit. students, how hard I find him to teach--and how exhilarating that experience is when it goes well.
With Whitman, for me what's at stake in teaching him is making sure students grasp his absolutist conception of democracy and the position his persona stakes as a cosmic observer of all people and times and not merely his own.  With Dickinson, the issues change with each poem but among them are the primacy of the poetic imagination, her explorations of the lives of women, and her startling language.  With Stevens, the task is to make clear one idea: the dynamic between the material world and that thing which Stevens calls the imagination that is the source of whatever order we see in that world . . . and how, even though it's the poet's task to perceive and describe the material world, the prison-house of language (not his phrase) makes that ultimately impossible (since language doesn't originate in the world but in human agency).  For my students, this notion--that language doesn't describe reality as it in fact exists but is, instead, the lens through which the experience of reality passes--is a new one and a difficult one to grasp.  But since this is Stevens' one big idea, they have to.  Well, okay: my obsessive returning to it gives them no choice but having to think about it.

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