Sunday, 10 January 2010

Kermode on English and poetry

Frank Kermode’s Not entitled: a memoir (London, Flamingo, 1997) is enjoyable on a number of grounds: for its accounts of growing up a Manxman, of war service in the navy, of academic posts in provincial universities and Cambridge (the last truly awful), but not least for his comments on the state of English studies, whereby it seems students now do anything except actually read the stuff.

Here are a couple of quotes. These ring a bell for me not because I've taught literature at university level but that I've taught students who’ve studied it and who are preparing to be English teachers.

In the first bit, he’s despairing of teaching literature to students who have been brought up on ‘Theory’, and has begun to wonder whether the best preparation might be a course in writing poetry.

Recently, however, I have encountered, in a graduate literature class, students who have been taught to write poems as a major part of their studies. Belatedly, I am almost convinced that this is where the study of literature ought to begin.

I read a poem by George Herbert and come to one of those lines that might be used as tests of a genuine understanding of poetry: "to sever the good fellowship of dust," or "Then shall the fall further the flight in me," or, more difficult, the remarkable ninth line of the sonnet "Prayer" (you need the whole poem to see why that line is perfect). I look up and see faces, on cue, gleaming with the experience of poetry: "The land of spices; something understood." Books are written about such topics as Herbert's understanding of Calvinism and so forth; and that's fine, these are real subjects. But the owners of those faces probably understand Herbert better than the learned authors who shuffle, cough in ink, and read Calvin.

But we cannot begin again. In this respect things are as they are, and will almost certainly get worse. (197-8)

And this, about the state of things in general:

The academy has long preferred ways of studying literature which actually permit or enjoin the study of something else in its place, and the success of the new French approaches has in many quarters come close to eliminating the study of literature altogether; indeed, there are many who regard the word as denoting a false category, a term used to dignify, in one's own interest, one set of texts by arbitrarily attributing to them a value arbitrarily denied to others. This position many find grateful, either because it saves trouble or because they have ideological objections to the notion that certain sorts of application can detect value here and dispute it there; or because they are, as it were, tone-deaf, and are as happy with the new state of affairs as a professor deaf from birth might be if relieved of the nightmare necessity of "teaching" the Beethoven quartets. (219)

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