Windows and Doors: A Poet Reads Literary Theory

Introduction

I started writing poetry the first time I read contemporary poetry, in seventh grade. That is when I remember thrilling to Sylvia Plath’s Ariel. Not Shakespeare or Tennyson or Poe with their antique diction and fair ladies—rather, a woman who spoke to me and who made me want to talk back. The germ of the book you hold in your hands began, perhaps, four years after that, when the advisor of my high school literary magazine suggested an addition to one of my poems. The poem outlined the body’s dissolving while the self remained. He told me to add the line, “a cascade of waterfall white” to describe the melting bones. It didn’t feel right, but what did I know? He was the English teacher. I added the line. When I’ve thought about the poem since, I shake my head. If only I could have argued that the line was frivolous: because cascade and waterfall are redundant, because “white” is clear from the previous line, and because the poem’s existential point demands brevity.

Fast forward to my first graduate school experience. During the one year (1979 – 1980) I did a creative writing M.A. at Johns Hopkins, I somehow ended up in a Humanities Center graduate seminar on the work of historian Michel Foucault. The room was crowded with Humanities Center students using words such as “hegemony” and “panopticon.” They were speaking a foreign language, one that I had no idea how to learn. I dropped the class and added one taught by a Writing Seminars instructor. There we read and discussed twentieth–century novels. This I could do, along with writing papers about themes or close readings. I don’t remember using the MLA bibliography or even library references anytime during that year.

At Hopkins back then, the writers poked fun at the theorists and their jargon and the fact that they were analyzing criticism instead of literature. I read only novels and poems that entire year. Jacques Derrida gave a talk and I didn’t go.

My one year M.A. did little to prepare me for the writing life. I’d always loved to read and write, and I’d been an English major in college, but I was driven by instinct. I had no framework for what I read and no idea how to find one. I knew what I liked but what I liked kept changing and I couldn’t explain why. For seven years after that degree, I flailed like a fish in a wide but shallow pool, attending poetry readings at the Library of Congress around the corner from the Capitol Hill restaurant where I was making a living as a waitress, reading many novels a week, and occasionally writing poems. I continued to write poems because of the economy of poetic language and its ability to convey the unsaid. I loved the silence—the white space—as much as the words. I moved back to Baltimore and taught freshman composition, and after a few years, the low adjunct pay plus a hunger to learn more drove me to Ph.D. programs in literature, first at the University of Delaware and then at the University of Maryland. Although I didn’t feel confident about my poems, I thought I could write about what I read.

During my Ph.D. studies at the University of Maryland, I learned the language of that classroom at Hopkins. I felt like one of those thin, dessicated sponges dropped into water. Feminist theory allowed me to understand why I felt intimidated about speaking up in class, one insight among many. Queer theory articulated my bisexual orientation. Marxist and race theory helped me to understand the inequities I saw around me. Narrative theory explained my satisfaction (or not) with the endings of novels. Deconstruction awakened me to the push and pull of binary oppositions, including the one between poetry and prose. I was no longer a naïve reader; rather, to use Robert Scholes’ term, I became a crafty one. There were no poetry theorists among the faculty at Maryland, but a plethora of narrative and feminist scholars, so I wrote a dissertation that examines the coquette as a figure of discourse from Molière to Edith Wharton. I loved the reading it forced me to do, not just plays and novels and conduct books, but theory and criticism and philosophy. I let go of the notion that the only texts worth studying are formally excellent ones, as I discovered that “mistakes” and contradictions in texts could help me articulate interesting questions. And I taught sophomore level classes in the novel, women’s literature, American literature, and the English major gateway class, an introduction to theory.

I once again applied myself to writing poems, driven by the desire to document my new ways of seeing, and with the help of my women’s writing group in Baltimore, I revised them. I published them in magazines. Four months after I sent it out, my first book of poems was accepted for publication. Sitting at my graduate student’s desk in the “Surge Building” after I’d gotten that news, I thought maybe now someone would let me teach poetry. Yet I knew that I was still driven by instinct when writing poems, and would have difficulty justifying my choices.

When it came time to look for a full–time teaching job, I applied for creative writing jobs, since I wanted to continue to write poems. On the basis of Red Under the Skin, that first book of poems, I was hired to teach poetry writing part–time in the low residency M.F.A. program at Vermont College. My first lecture was about etymology and poetry, a topic spurred by my research into the history of the word “coquette.” I continued to look for a full time job. I had many interviews, and potential colleagues often seemed suspicious. Why had I written a scholarly dissertation on the novel when I wrote poetry? Did my Ph.D. make any difference in the way I taught poetry writing? And the unspoken but palpable worry, in large departments, would I vote with the writers or the scholars? Which was I, really?

It’s no wonder I ended up full–time at a small college, Westminster in Salt Lake City, where everyone in the English department had a scholarly Ph.D. and everyone taught a variety of courses. And where there was no poet on the faculty to ask me, “How would you teach John Ashbery?” which, in 1995 at one campus interview, I hadn’t a clue how to answer. I was beginning to understand that the poetry world was as divided as academia itself with cliques and camps. But I was also determined to bridge those camps, or rather, I couldn’t help but bridge those camps simply because of my writing, reading, and teaching practices.

In one sense, this book is the answer to that question, “Does a Ph.D. make any difference in the way you teach poetry writing?” Of course, it’s not the Ph.D. but the reading that makes me answer “yes.” I can’t switch off the politically charged way I’d learned to read.

Over the years, with the help of my Westminster and Vermont College M.F.A. students and colleagues, I learned how to teach poetry writing. But when I had to recommend books for my students, I was dismayed by poetry handbooks that seemed dumbed down or frozen in the fifties. Books of essays by poets were better, but haphazard. And so much current critical writing about poetry is done in the form of book reviews or craft essays by poets who are anti–theory, resisting the ideological insights I was passionate about. And finally, books by scholars of poetry (that ever–diminishing group) seemed to be speaking only to other scholars, and taking their examples from a thin slice of contemporary U.S. poetry.

Windows and Doors attempts to address this deficit, by placing poststructuralist and postmodern ways of thinking alongside the formalist, making explicit what is usually tacit. Each of the nine essays addresses a topic of central concern to readers and writers of poetry at the same time that it makes an original argument about poetic language and ideology. Each essay grew out of a question I initially couldn’t answer. Sometimes the question changed when I discovered someone else’s answer. I wrote the book I wished I had had in my poetry writing classes, first as a student and then as a teacher, one that would allow history, philosophy, and literary theory into the creative writing classroom, and one that would use truly diverse poems as examples. I wrote to a plan addressing the foundational topics of poetry: diction, syntax, rhythm, emotion, figurative language, narrative, genre, book design, and performativity. I wanted to clarify the debates that are dividing poets and scholars, and write a book that is both personal and a useful teaching text, one that might, through its copious use of examples, also offer writing prompts. I wanted to write a book conveying the energy of Noble Lounge at Vermont College when I lecture there, a space of conversation and debate, a space where a poetry student who is also a surgeon can comment that the reciprocity of ethics in the operating room is akin to that of reading a poem. From their considerable expertise in fields other than poetry, I have learned much from my students. I consider these chapters provisional and hope they connect with anyone who is serious about poetry, regardless of background.

My examples are taken from what I was reading. I am sure there are better examples for every argument. Similarly, my research was somewhat haphazard, although often serendipitous, and I am sure I missed relevant and important sources for each essay. I have revised the essays for this book, but the reader should know that the essays were originally written over a fifteen–year period. I hope readers will forgive me; my aim is not to be exhaustive or authoritative but rather suggestive. My title comes from a poem by Emily Dickinson: “I dwell in Possibility/A fairer House than Prose /More numerous of Windows —/Superior — for Doors—.” The poem equates “possibility” with poetry, suggesting that poems have more windows and doors than prose. With these essays and these examples, I hope that I have, for some readers, opened a door to literary theory.