22 July 2009

I Am a Specialist

Although tonight I am a specialist without a photograph.  Also, earlier this evening I watched as a bug immolated itself in one of my lamps.  I'm sorry, and I felt bad, but it was a really big bug, and I just didn't want to interface with it.  There's no earthly reason for it, I know, but really big bugs freak me out.

Today in the advanced class we did Don Juan.  I had them read 1 to 4, but we never got round to 3 and 4, worse luck.  

I love Don Juan.  I know I've said it before, but I truly do.  It's not my favourite Byron poem - if "favourite" means the one that gets your blood up most - but I do love it, with a kind of rich pleasure that's closer to delight, and that can best be compared to pleasure of meeting an old friend:  you are happy because you know the person will act in certain ways, but you also know that they will surprise you, because they always do.  I confess that I mostly love Don Juan for the sheer brilliance of its humour - well, its wit.  Sometimes I try to figure out to myself what my second-favourite lines are (my favourite lines I know beyond dispute:  "I spend my evenings in long galleries solely, / And that's the reason I'm so melancholy." The forced rhyme there makes me laugh every time, not just because the rhyme itself is silly and unexpected, but because it renders "melancholy" silly.  But I understand that not everyone finds that as enjoyable as I).  I can spend a lot of time doing this, because there are a lot of contenders, but usually I narrow it down to two, the narrator's description of Juan's father, Jòse, "A better cavalier ne'er mounted horse; / Or, being mounted, e'er got down again," and his meditation on the unfortunateness of the word fifty, "When people say, 'I've told you fifty times,' / They mean to scold, and very often do; / When poets say, 'I've written fifty rhymes,' / They make you dread that they'll recite them, too."  The second of these I love because it's absolutely true, and because Byron says exactly what you were thinking.  It's so honest, and so unexpected, and then the rhythm of the second line conveys its own dread perfectly, by coming down hard on "recite," which is of course what you fear.  The first I love because it is the sublime of jokes: it's funny, and you know it's funny, but you don't know why it's funny.  Fortunately, I am here to tell you why.  It's because the second line deflates the first.  "A better xx never yyyed" is a common expression, and here Byron unmasks it as the clichè   it is:  once Jòse is up on that horse, he's got to get down again, but the clichè never deals with that side of things:  "A better dancer never took to the floor.  Or, um, stepped off it."  By dealing precisely with that side of things, Byron shows you the emptiness of the expression.  

So, it's a delight (really, it is.  How could a poem in which a man dresses a girl to be smuggled into a harem not be a delight?).  But someone in the class was not delighted!!  Someone in the class found it difficult to like the narrator, because the narrator is snotty about everything.  But that's one of the pleasures of the poem!  (and anyway, he isn't.  He's quite lovely about some things.)  And this led us, by a not very circuitous route, to a discussion of what makes a poem a valid subject of study.

Well, what does?  This is a very difficult question to answer.  My honest answer would be, as I think I might have said before, the duende.  If it has duende for you, it's worth studying.  Today in the other class my smalls and I did Keats's "When I have fears":

When I have fears that I may cease to be,
Before my pen has glean'd my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books, in charac'try, 
Hold like rich garners the full-ripened grain;
When I behold upon the night's starred face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never lived to trace
Their features with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I may never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love, then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think,
Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.

As S.A. and my FTT might say, chingaaaaa.  Now, that's some poetry.  And the thing of it is, you don't even need to understand it to feel with your soul that it's wondrous.  It hits your blood, like mainlining heroin.  For me, that's what makes a poem worth deep study:  that it speaks in a way that surpasses words.

But of course that's not the only kind of poetry I study, and the kids did bring up some excellent other qualifications for making a work of literature a valid subject of study:  because a piece of literature tells you about its time period - it's a cultural artifact; because a piece of literature surpasses its time period; because a piece of literature gives voice to the previously voiceless. And I do think all these are valid reasons, although perhaps valid reasons for different kinds of study.  All literary criticism, after all, as I said to the students, is a subjective declaration of interest: you just have to be able to present enough evidence to convince people that your subjective declaration is valid - as a character in Arcadia says, "It can't be proved right; it can only not be proved wrong yet."

What does important art do? Oh, it gives voice to the voiceless, definitely.  It evokes, adumbrates, illuminates, and surpasses its time, yes.  But I confess, lover of magic that I am, that I believe that most of all important art makes the blood rush to your frontal lobe, makes you marvel that someone should have produced THIS, this piece of (in my case) literature where not one word is wasted, where each iota matters, but where, simultaneously, the meaning always slips from your grasp.  Where your knowing outstrips your knowledge.


No comments: