Thursday, July 10, 2008

Teaching the Teachers Who Teach Poetry: RACHEL HADAS, Laws

Are there "laws" for how to teach poetry in high school classrooms? That's not what Rachel Hadas means by the title of her collection LAWS, which has become a hit for Advanced Placement teachers wrestling with how to light poetic flames in their students. But Hadas, guest lecturer at the Advanced Placement Institute in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, this week, offered specific guidance, her precepts for how to write good poetry and thus how to study it -- especially considering that Advanced Placement students will be tested on their ability to write about poetry:

* Think of the poem as a gesture [she raised a hand to illustrate a couple of gestures] -- something that has a beginning and an end.
* The reader cannot read your mind.
* The HOW trumps the WHAT. [Teaching this "might prevent the student from treating the poem as if it were a Chinese fortune cookie, where you peel it away and only keep the fortune hidden inside."]
* Pay attention to the beginning.
* Pay attention to the ending.
* Pay attention to how the poem gets there.
* Make syntax work for you. [She quoed Randall Jarrell as saying, "a great poet is one who after many years of standing in the rain in thunderstorms, gets struck by lightning once."]
* Poetry includes inspiration, interpretation, and revision. ["The poet's job is to squeeze out the excess water from the wet washcloth or sponge."]

Hadas recommends the book IN THE FRAME, in which she has an essay that references her poem "Two Paintings Seen Again" (from LAWS) and others -- the collection is on ekphrastic poems and poetry by women, and is now in press; she also suggested an anthology edited by John Hollander, THE GAZER'S SPIRIT.

Teachers asked Hadas about the classical allusions in most of her poems, as in the one titled "Hermes," seeking her advice "to us, who teach audiences who are largely illiterate to classical allusions."

Hadas in turn pointed to the presence of the Internet and the post-9/11 world in her work, and said that technology gets out of date, but classical mythology doesn't. She explained, "When I write about mythology I like to bring it up to date in some way. This is a poetic impulse that has existed since antiquity."

The teachers also inquired about Hadas' experience as a translator from the Greek. "I enjoy translation," she pointed out. "It makes me pay attention. I do think it's good for poets to enter the minds of other people." She recommended the translations by F. D. Reeve of Robert Frost's poetry into Russian, and the work of Rena Espaya bringing Frost into Spanish.

Hadas brought some new work too, mostly very short poems, where she's looking to pare down the language. Her poem "Loneliness" begins,

Love costs anxiety, joy has a price:
the fragile edge and smoky smell of limits.

The poem concludes:

Nor do we need to doubt that anyone
who once has tasted loneliness will ever
forget its special savor.

Finally, she predicted a fresh trend in upcoming poems: that we'll all see more Milton in poetry, one way and another, due to the drenching in allusion that fits his work to a post-9/11 world where, as she paints it in her poem "The Fork in the Road," "I am not afraid, / and yet I don't feel safe."

Hadas is guest lecturer also later this summer, on August 8, at the Frost Place Seminar in Franconia, NH (

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