The unseen worth

Larry Raab certainly had his work cut out for him. I'd signed up for his course on contemporary American poetry primarily because I knew almost nothing about the subject and because his photo in the Bread Loaf School of English brochure bore an uncanny resemblance to Gene Shalit. However, after buying the six or seven skinny volumes listed on the syllabus and dutifully plowing through them ahead of time, that course on War and Peace I'd decided against began to look awfully attractive. To be sure, some lines from a few poems echoed pleasantly - if not very meaningfully - in the memory. For the most part, however, I was frankly baffled, annoyed, and exasperated - at times to the point of wall-slamming fury - by what struck me as perverse and willful obscurantism on the part of the authors for whose verbal doodling - for so it seemed at the time - I'd squandered good money.

Larry changed all that. To begin with, he was a poet himself, in fact, a rather highly regarded one. He had such respect for the poem as a living, richly allusive entity that our class discussions were akin to stalking game more with cameras than with high-powered rifles. Our goal was to observe, appreciate, and, if possible, to enter into sympathy with the poems, not to bag literary trophies or to say, ''Oh, so that's what the guy's trying to get at'' while ignoring what the poet wanted his reader to feel.

He also had respect for the panic and bewilderment we so often felt at the outset of the course. We were frequently reminded that such confusion might well be part of the poem's strategy, that the use of tortured syntax and of apparently random images may be a deliberate effort on the poet's part to make things hard for us, to make the poem a process of collaboration between poet and reader rather than a message to be deciphered and discarded. In fact, Raab stressed, the difficulty we were experiencing in reading the poem could well be part of the poem's meaning. The poet might, for instance, be seeking to challenge the assumptions about reality that we carry about without question. He might be trying to rescue language from inattention and cliche, the appearance of things from ordinariness. He might be trying to transform the everyday into something rich and strange. As a result, Raab insisted, the poems we were studying were apt to be reduction-resistant but not resistant to sensitive examination.

For all these reasons we were urged to let our responses to each poem be provisional responses, to go on asking the poem to reveal its connections and to confront our own responses to the poem as well as the poem itself. We were to ask ourselves continually what emotions, ideas, and concerns adhered to the various images the poem comprised and to make the associations between images that the poem demanded. ''Stop worrying and start paying attention!'' he'd admonish us. ''Don't explicate. Investigate!'' was another one.

This all sounded great. The approach seemed to work like a charm - in class, that is. Things didn't seem any easier when I pored over the next day's assignment back in my room, however. It was a bit dismaying to find myself getting every bit as muddled over Sylvia Plath in the fifth week of class as I had over Roethke in the first. I'll not soon forget the evening I fought it out toe to toe with W. S. Merwin until 3 in the morning and wound up giving vent to my frustrations by scribbling phrases like ''To understand Merwin you must be willing to hunt for animals you know to be extinct and photograph their calls. You must have X-ray peripheral vision that sees the skeletal structure of shadows.''

Each morning, however, I'd return to class fully confident that Larry would once again tease us into understanding. And he always did - by posing questions that would jar us into making connections we'd overlooked in our own reading. Questions like ''Why do you think Lowell decided to call this poem 'Skunk Hour' rather than 'Raccoon Hour'?'' I became so good at following such clues that I began to fancy I had rather a knack for modern poetry, that before long I'd be able to grasp it on my own.

Our final writing assignment was designed to prove just that. Several weeks before the semester ended, we were handed two soon-to-be-published poems, each by an unidentified young American poet. The directions for the assignment asked us to imagine that we were one of three editors of a poetry magazine. Editor A disliked the poem intensely and wanted it rejected. Editor B liked the poem and wanted to publish it. Our opinion would sway the matter one way or the other. We had three choices: to write Editor A and explain why the poem was good and should be published, to write Editor B and explain why the poem was unsuccessful and should be rejected, or to write to the poet and explain why the poem was promising but flawed and recommend how it should be revised.

I chose the less puzzling of the two poems, something about a trip amid foreign surroundings. I could tell that much at least. I read and reread the poem, then read it some more. I repeated this process four or five days in succession. The old resentment, the nail-biting, and desk-pounding were starting to set in. I concluded that the trip being described was a train trip - there was something in the second stanza about tracks - and I had the impression that the narrator felt somewhat estranged from his fellow-passengers. And that seemed to be about it. ''So what?'' I thought.

I decided I'd about had it with this stuff and started composing a blistering tirade to editor B (the one who, for heaven knew what reason, liked the poem) on the pitfalls of modern poetry in general as illustrated in this poem, which expected too much work from the reader and gave too little in return. I recommended a major shift in editorial direction - back to the good, old-fashioned straightforward diction of giants like Wordsworth and away from poems like the one in question before we lost what slender readership we had left.

As I examined the poem with an eye to specific weaknesses, however, a group of lines suddenly registered on me more forcefully than before:

The air was warmand close, and I started to suspect I had forgotten something in my hotel room. They reminded me of a bus trip I'd recently taken through Vermont. At first I'd simply gazed out the window at the scenery. Suddenly it occurred to me that I might have left my wallet in my car parked at the bus station. A quick rummage through my Bean bag. Not there. Could I have left it in the seat of the car where someone, passing by, might notice and try to break in? (As it turned out, the wallet was in one of the bags I'd shoved in the luggage compartment of the bus.)

I could now associate not only with the narrator's suspicion of forgetfulness but also, to some extent, with whatever seemed to trigger that feeling in the poem - the narrator's sense of estrangement from his surroundings, his sense of incompleteness that he mistakenly attributes to the absence of a particular object.

Once I'd made these connections, the details started to make sense. Here were competing emotions: the poet's desire for flight from his fellow passengers while he yearned for a satisfying connection with them. Once this much became clear, the image that closed the poem struck me as a particularly succinct expression of a frustrated desire for union:

They were speaking,

but the sound of their voices

faded into the sound of the radio,

songs I could not understand,

others I had been trying to recall.

All I heard became the sound

of the wheels carrying each of us

along the arc of what would become

a perfect circle if we had time

to travel that far.

To show how, in the end, all this added up, I'll tell you about a dream that occurred several months later. For some reason, the class was convening in an enormous train station. Larry, dressed in his usual rumpled work shirt, surveyed us with his kindly, gnomic gaze and asked, ''Why is poetry like the gold in Fort Knox?''

Silence hung in that huge terminal like smoke from a departed steam engine. Suddenly, I knew I had it. I rose to my feet and without hesitation replied, ''Without the gold in Fort Knox, our currency would lose its value. Poetry is like the gold in Fort Knox, because even though not many people ever see it, the value of language depends on its existence.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.