On Poets and Poetry

An Excerpt

What keeps it in training is still the classroom, where I continue to make the attempt to know literature—to know a poem—freshly. Early in my career as a teacher and a writer, I discovered the following sentences of R.P. Blackmur, ones I have returned to frequently. Blackmur is speaking of how we go about, in Pound's phrase, making it new, and claims:

The institution of literature, so far as it is alive, is made again at every instant. It is made afresh as part of the process of being known afresh; what is permanent is what is always fresh, and it can be fresh only in performance—that is, in reading and seeing and hearing what is actually in it at this place and this time...the critic brings to consciousness the means of performance.

Those final words always seem to demand rereading, as with so many of Blackmur's sentences, but I take it that the teacher likewise "brings to consciousness"—to his students and himself—“the means of performance”: the verbal invitations to our eyes and (above all) our ears that issue from the poem. Selfishly, that classroom is central to my life because it is the only place where something like a conversation can be started about a poem of Ben Jonson's, Shakespeare's Cymbeline, or a novel by Henry James. One doesn't expect to have such a conversation when dining at a friend's or even when passing the time with a professional colleague. They might not have read or been reading the right book at the right time; for that to happen, something like a captive audience of more or less agreeable students is necessary.