Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Rachel Hadas: The Poem as the "Well-Wrought Urn"

A quick meeting with poet and classics scholar/translator Rachel Hadas today reminded me of some ground she covered earlier this summer with teacher-attendees at the Advanced Placement Institute in St. Johnsbury, Vermont. Hadas, who considers herself a perfectionist poem by poem, spoke of deconstruction as having shut out the author entirely from the poem. She commented with delight, though, that use of her poem "The Red Hat" on Advanced Placement exams shows how technology has "let the author back into the house through the window of the Internet." Students who study for the AP exam locate her e-mail (not hard; she's a professor at Rutgers Newark) and ask her in many ways, "What were you saying?"

Her responses cover three areas: First, she wants readers to pay attention to the how of her poems, rather than the what. Second, she says students in particular see all poetry as autobiographical and want to ask questions about her life -- which she declines, teaching instead that poems move beyond the details of what happened today. And third, she looks with her questioners at the grounds for their assumption that questions about a poem "can best be answered by e-mail." She notes that "students' message-related efforts make an end run around the use of language in the poem."

I tie this back to Hadas' recent essay in the ALSC journal, in which, clearly, the "meaning" of the poem is formed from a braid or blend of the words, any previous knowledge about the author, and the reader's own mood and experience.


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