This Week In My Classes: Love Poems and Social Novels

In English 1000, we’ve started our first poetry unit. We’ll be doing more poetry after Christmas, organized into what I hope will be provocative thematic clusters, but for now we’re just working through the basics of reading and analyzing poetry — meter and scansion, figurative language, poetic forms and modes. We haven’t really talked much about specific poems yet, since I’ve been using the assigned ones mostly to teach vocabulary for poetic devices, but on Wednesday we’re reading a little group of love poems and I hope to open things up a bit more than I have been doing so far. I haven’t quite decided how, though. The poems are Anne Bradstreet’s “To My Dear and Loving Husband,” EBB’s “How do I love thee,” and Shakespeare’s “Let Me Not to the Marriage of True Minds.” I guess some talk about sonnet form is probably appropriate, and about EBB’s appropriation of the conventions of love sonnets for a woman’s voice. Maybe we’ll get a bit silly and play Poetry Survivor: set up some standards for a great love poem and then vote one off the island out of the anthology as the weakest of the three. All this talk about metrical variation and synecdoche has probably made them afraid to react viscerally to a poem! The challenge, an exercise like that might show them, is to channel that gut reaction into an energetic analysis of the actual poetry.

In English 2040, it’s hard-boiled detective fiction time. Every year I swear I’ll dump The Maltese Falcon for The Big Sleep and I never do. But the thing is, first of all, that I really do think The Maltese Falcon is brilliant, and it teaches so well, by which I mean it brings up so many of the themes we’re interested in across all of our readings. Also, and this is not incidental, I have been working with it for a while and feel pretty confident talking about it. Even just considering how convoluted the plots of these novels are, that’s no small thing! Still, I’m sure The Big Sleep is just as brilliant in its own style. Maybe next year, since it looks like I’ll be teaching this class yet again…which is fine, as I really do enjoy it. I just find it kind of funny that the class I have offered most often in the last decade is this one, because it gets bums in seats (83 bums this year, to be precise).

Most fun this week is working on South Riding in the Somerville seminar. The students are very engaged, especially now that we’re past the initially disorienting ‘getting to know all the characters’ phase. We had a lively discussion today about the variable points of view in the novel and how they affect our understanding of the community and also our sympathies. One idea we considered is that the constantly shifting perspective makes it hard for us to arrive at moral judgments about the characters: just when we think we condemn their choices or actions, we are brought to see them in a different context. And yet there seem to be exceptions to this, people whose points of view show off their faults or limits. Alderman Snaith attracted the most attention. He seems clearly set up to be the bad guy, but it was pointed out that he isn’t really after anything so different from what everyone else wants (money, power, success)–he’s just smarmier about it. Also, he is indifferent to suffering caused by his pursuit of his own interests. Holtby has given him a back story that seems calculated to awaken our sympathy: it seems that he was abused or raped as a child by “evil men” and he’s been left “a psychological cripple for life,”  feeling only horror at “all thoughts of mating and procreation.” We haven’t really worked out how this particular trauma fits into the larger themes of the novel, or even into the overall portrayal of his character, but we were noticing other scenes or intimations of sexual violence and the destructive potential of sexual desire, from the death of Mrs. Holly in childbirth to the suggestion that Robert Carne raped his wife (the word he uses is “forced”). It’s a novel full of the rhythms and forces of the natural world, but it’s hardly a pastoral idyll: perhaps this is a way of showing that human life, despite the best efforts of civilization, is driven by the same powerful urges. One implication would be that reform (social, political, educational) is both urgently needed and inevitably futile. Sarah Burton’s idealism can make us want to stand up and cheer. “We’ve got to have courage, to take our future into our own hands,” she declaims to Mrs. Beddows. “If the law is oppressive, we must change the law. If tradition is obstructive, we must break tradition. If the system is unjust, we must reform the system.” But Mrs. Beddowss has “seen compassion impotent and effort wasted”; she reflects on the parade of miseries she has seen, on illness and suffering and injustice all brought on “by circumstances which neither courage nor intelligence could have altered.” Sarah dreams of “the gradual reduction of the areas ruled by chance,” but so far the novel has not filled its readers with optimism that such transformation is possible. Perhaps the novel is a lesson in lowering expectations. As Alderman Astell, the once-idealistic socialist, remarks to Sarah, “You begin by thinking in terms of world-revolution and end by learning to be pleased with a sewage farm.”

2 Comments to This Week In My Classes: Love Poems and Social Novels

  1. October 15, 2012 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

    One great thing about The Big Sleep is how self-conscious it is about the contrast between the hard-boiled detective and the classical detective and hero of romance from whom he is descended. It’s there right from the opening with the stained-glass window of a knight–Marlowe wants to climb up and help him rescue the lady. And then there’s so much else! It went really well when I taught it. I told my students not to worry too much about grasping the Byzantine plot. Being confused is part of the point, and a reflection of the theme of corruption, and Marlowe is confused and vulnerable along with us. We read a Sherlock Holmes short story before it as a way of setting up the contrasts. Anyway, you can probably tell I loved teaching it!

  2. Rohan's Gravatar Rohan
    October 22, 2012 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    Liz, I am officially tired of the Maltese Falcon, so I think the time has come. I read The big Sleep when I was choosing my books for the course way back when I first proposed it–it is indeed even more confusing than Falcon! But I can imagine it working well with the rest of the course for the reasons you give. For us it will come after both Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie, so the contrasts will be conspicuous!

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Summer Reading 2014

Rohan:
1. Julie James, It Happened One Wedding
2. Dorothy Dunnett, King Hereafter
3. Miriam Toews, All My Puny Sorrows
4. Elizabeth George, Just One Evil Act
In progress: Dunnett, Niccolo Rising

Maddie:
1. Judy Blume, Forever
2. Rob Thomas, Veronica Mars, an original mystery
3. John Green, Paper Towns
In progress: Blume, Then Again Maybe I Won't

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