In 1994 I was brought back after a year’s retirement to give for one last time a graduate seminar of my devising, called “Traditionalism and Experimentation in Poetry, 1880–1920,” which I had offered on and off in the Dalhousie English department for twenty years.
During that academic year I wrote a number of handouts for the group, as aids to what was to come at the next meeting, or as afterthoughts about a previous discussion.
I was writing off the cuff, and without shuffling over to the library to firm up my (relative) expertise. After all, I was retired, wasn’t I?
But actually, it was a good discipline speaking simply as myself, and not saying anything that I didn’t really understand myself, and not worrying about what some colleague might say about what I had written, were it come to their attention. And I learned a good deal in the process.
I am grateful for the Macintosh Portable that made that kind of discoursing possible.
As may be noticed, we looked at French poems in the original—scrutinized a relative handful each by Baudelaire, Verlaine, Mallarmé, Laforgue; glanced at a few others by Valéry, Rimbaud, Gautier, Marceline Desbordes-Valmore.
We were not a nest of bilingual singing birds, and we needed the help of dual-text translations. My own French is very imperfect. But it seemed to me better to have a go at the originals than not to, since the approach in the class was a formal one.
We were trying to figure out how things went in particular poems, and how to talk without waffling, and you cannot talk with any precision about a key Symbolist poem like Baudelaire’s “Le Cygne” if what you are looking at is a poem in English (a “translation”) called “The Swan.”
But our approach was not merely formal, as in (ugh!) “formalistic.”
It allowed us to talk about feelings, attitudes, tones, and so forth.
It included the weekly taping by students of poems for discussion (some of the recordings were superb), and the consideration of a number of key prose documents, such as T.E. Hulme’s “Romanticism and Classicism” and Ernest Fenollosa’s The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry.
And what with the various cut-and-pastes that supplemented Angel Flores excellent Anthology of French Poetry from Nerval to Valéry in English Translation (plus the French originals), we would by the end of the year have looked, one way or another, and with various degrees of closeness, at over four hundred poems, English, American, and French—not all of them, obviously, from the nominal four decades of the class description.
At the end of one particularly good year, the seminar members presented me with their five-person recording of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 (“That time of year thou mayst in me behold”), sung without the least touch of “camp,” and with perfect appropriateness, as a Country-and-Western.
A long time ago, I had the good fortune to be in the seminar at Columbia University (not on poetry) given jointly by Jacques Barzun and Lionel Trilling. It was from them that I took the technique of having papers put on reserve before a class meeting, so that members could come to class having read them and be able to go straight-way into the matters dealt with in them.
I also learned from Barzun’s detailed pencillings on my own paper (“At last a decent sentence!” appeared on page eight, as I recall) what an attentive and essentially respectful reading felt like.
To him, and to the shade of Lionel Trilling, my gratitude.
And gratitude also to the shade of Yvor Winters (whom I never knew), that most wide-ranging and passionate of poetry lovers.
Here, then, are nine of the jottings from 1994-95, plus part of a handout on To the Lighthouse that I did for an undergraduate class two years earlier.
The texts are unaltered, apart from my having broken up paragraphs in the interests of readability and added dividers.
- Verlaine Afterthoughts
- Reading Mallarmé
- Referentiality and Stanley Fish
- Hölderlin, Shelley, and Romanticism
- Yeats Afterthoughts
- Reading Hopkins (1)
- Reading Hopkins (2)
- Reading To the Lighthouse
The piece on Referentiality appeared subsequently in a Festschrift for that inspiring teacher of poetry and prose Christopher Drummond (1935-2001) of the University of Alberta “Not Always to Be Taught; Essays and Poems Presented to C.Q. Drummond”, edited by Gordon Harvey (n.p., 1997).
I did not try to publish any of the others.
Saying Simply is for David McGimpsey and George Elliott Clarke.