The letter to the New York Times Book Review that Ange Mlinko mentions in her post caught my eye too, but for different reasons. “Give me code cracking any day” wrote the letter writer, Allen Benn, in response to David Kirby's review of David Orr's new book of criticism, Beautiful and Pointless. Benn then went on to say that, for example, William Carlos Williams’ “Tract” is a poem about poetry. Sure it is. And I agree with Ange’s anti-anti-intellectualism stance. But “Tract” is, first of all, about what it says it’s about: funerals, and funeral customs, and mourning. It seems to me that Orr’s and Kirby’s point is that teachers of poetry are awfully quick to move toward code-cracking, which is exactly what makes many students (including many of my undergraduate students) dislike poetry. They feel there’s some secret to it that they just don’t have the tools to figure out. When I taught Ange’s most recent book, Shoulder Season, last fall, as well as the previous spring, to undergrads, it was by encouraging them not to worry about what the poems mean, but to encounter the language directly as they might encounter paint on a canvas or musical notes, that allowed them to start thinking about what the poems might mean. First they were intimidated. Then, when they felt let off the hook about cracking codes, delight set in, and they started to…well, crack codes. Allen Benn probably does something similar with his classes, but to judge from his letter alone one worries he starts with meaning and forgets to deal with what’s on the surface, the materials.
Daisy Fried is the author of Women's Poetry: Poems and Advice (2013), My Brother is Getting Arrested Again (2006) and She Didn’t Mean to Do It (2000), all from University of Pittsburgh Press. She was awarded the Editors' Prize for Feature Article from Poetry magazine in 2009.