Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

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Poetry Thursday: "To a Dead Graduate Student"

Some of my Tucson LJ friends, such as _luaineach, deoirfola, and elf_owl, have started up a "Poetry Thursday" in their journals. I put poetry up on De File on a semi-regular basis already, but thought I'd also play along with them.

I'll share the poem I taught in my undergraduate class yesterday. I like using it in my unit on meter because it's a great example of how to make form and content converge. The meter tells a story that reinforces the message of the poem. It's by my onetime creative writing teacher Thom Gunn who was also, unfortunately, something of a nemesis for my wife-to-be. The poem comes from his excellent book The Man With Night Sweats:
To a Dead Graduate Student

The whole rich process of twined opposites,
Tendril round stalk, developing in tandem
Through tangled exquisite detail that knits
To a unique promise -- checked at random,
Killed, wasted. What a teacher you'd have made:
Your tough impatient mind, your flowering looks
Would have seduced the backward where they played,
Rebels like you, to share your love of books.
One of the things I emphasize when I'm teaching this "Literary Analysis" course is that the act of reading must be considered in relation to the act of looking that encompasses it. We're always seeing more of the page than we can consciously read. And we're always reading ahead and behind in ways of which we are rarely conscious. The move to "look for the verb" that readers of German or Latin are familiar with is not one we're used to making in English. But our eyes and brain know things that our consciousness does not. Part of us reads ahead and behind in order to get a handle on tone or to give a particular word the correct accent.

That part of us can also lead us productively astray, however. Take the penultimate line of Gunn's poem. It reads "backward." Over several years of having students read it out loud, I've come to expect it to be read "backyard." As someone in yesterday's class smartly pointed out, the explanation for that tendency to mispronounce lies not only with the fact that we associate the action of playing with backyards, but also that the letter "Y" appears in the word "your" both above and below "backward." The confusion that results leads many readers to have trouble with "backward." This is a mistake that teaches, though, because the association of "the backward" with childhood and the sort of games kids play in the backyard resonates with the poem's theme of tragically wasted youth. Rebels want to stay home instead of going to school. The dead graduate student mourned in the poem apparently had the gift of convincing that sort of non-conformist that rebellion can be achieved within the conventional world of grown-ups. The meter in the first half of the poem testifies to that potential, demonstrating how much positive energy can be generated by refusing to do what is expected.
Tags: poetry
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