On Monday Kathleen Rooney shared a remarkable exercise for students, or really for anyone, in creative writing or in any other class where poems get interpreted, appreciated, evaluated, analyzed and compared.

I'm afraid, though, that she misrepresented the exercise, and she may have omitted its history: I hope she won't mind if I add to her remarks.

If you haven't already read her original post, go read it now, as there are spoilers below.

OK, thanks. So most of Rooney's students turn out to prefer Jewel to Rilke: is that a problem? Is it her problem? Or Rilke's? It might actually be David Ferry’s: though she says that they're comparing Rilke to Jewel, in fact they are comparing an English adaptation by David Ferry of Rilke's original German poem; and they are reading an adaptation that Ferry says should not be called a translation. I prefer David Ferry's poems to Jewel's, myself, but neither Ferry's name nor that of any other contemporary poet has quite the same knock-down canonical force as Rilke's.

Or the problem might be no problem at all: that's Rooney's take in her thoughtful final paragraph, in which she says that the exercise shows "how much the experience of a particular poem is largely dependent on what readers bring to it in terms of their desires and expectations." That's right: and that dependence creates a problem for teachers of literature (not only of poetry), since we have to show our students—which means that we in turn must show ourselves—why it's worth acquiring the desires, expectations, and indeed the factual knowledge that lead us to prefer (if indeed we do prefer) David Ferry's, or Rilke's, or Elizabeth Bishop's, or John Clare's, poetry to Jewel's. That sort of acquisition, that sort of learning, takes time and energy.

One way to think about that time and energy might be the way that we think about piano practice, about studying for an exam: it can be tedious getting all those facts down, learning what pentameters are, what a Greater Romantic Ode might be, but it's all worth it in the end. That's the approach historically taken by many "lit" classes.

It's also, sometimes, the approach created—in part inadvertently—by the first and most influential figure to perform such blind taste tests, such exercises, with undergraduates: the Cambridge University professor I. A. Richards, who coined the term and wrote the book on Practical Criticism, by which he meant the analysis and evaluation of poems without reference to anything outside the text, not even the name of the author. Richards, like Rooney, found that his students preferred less canonical, less complex, less critically admired poems to more complex or more critically admired ones; unlike Rooney, he thought those preferences were clearly a problem, and tried to change English education so as to fix them.

But Richards did not want education in the history of poetry to become year after year of "eat your vegetables, you'll grow up big and strong" (i.e. "you'll enjoy Donne") "later on." Quite the reverse: he was reacting against a Cambridge (and an Oxford, and an elite secondary school) curriculum that emphasized contexts, lives and traditions and de-emphasized immediate response.

The challenge, for him, was to get students to understand Donne, and hence to prefer Donne to Longfellow (one of the "bad" examples in Practical Criticism, the book); in order to justify that preference, he had to come up with a whole set of ideas about what made Donne and Keats better, and better for you. They are not ideas we should hold in contempt today. (Here's one, in thumbnail form: the world is complicated, and so are the people in it; the best poetry should do justice to that complexity.)

But the challenge for us, now that poetry in general can seem (as it did not in the 1920s) like an academic sort of art form, might be to make the process of understanding itself enjoyable: to expand, rather than try to contract, the range of poems and the range of kinds of poems our readers and students feel able to comprehend, and to make that process of expansion, page by page or hour by hour, itself a pleasure, "the fruit of a multiplied consciousness" rather than only the patient planting of seeds.

What can we do in the classroom, and out of the classroom, to make that sort of expansion take place—and to make it a pleasure, too?

Or is that the wrong goal? What's the right one?

Originally Published: April 5th, 2012

Steph Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor. In 2012, the New York Times called Burt “one of the most influential poetry critics of his generation.” Burt grew up around Washington, DC and earned a BA from Harvard and PhD from Yale. She has published three collections of poems: Belmont (2013), Parallel Play (2006), and...