Form and Formation IV: The Call of Lyric Poems

Poems are scattered throughout the scholarship on vocation—or at least excerpts from poems—so much so that I’m not worried about the death of poetry any time soon. But why teach poetry as we discuss vocation with students? A host of recent articles have suggested what poetry can offer the general reader, especially in a global pandemic: solace (“The Importance of Poetry in Challenging Times and How to Teach Students About It”), rejuvenation for a dwindling attention span (“Books Briefing: If Your Attention Span is Shrinking, Read Poetry”), a boost to creativity (“How Poetry Shakes Up the National Desk’s Morning Meetings”). But even if we don’t disagree with these suggestions, most of them are not sufficient reasons for teaching poetry to undergraduates even if they suggest pragmatic ends for reading it.

We might start to answer the “why” by listening to what students tell us about their experience with poetry prior to college. Many students have been taught a Romantic expressivist theory—that poetry is the passionate expression of the poet’s personal emotions—and thus think of the lyric as the poetic norm, whether they recognize it or not. The simplest marker of a lyric would be the “I” who expresses feelings or perceptions about human existence—William Wordsworth’s speaker, reclining and lamenting “what man has made of man” while feeling pleasantly sad in a birdsong-filled grove, for example (“Lines written in Early Spring”). Students don’t often consider that the “I” is a construct, that the emotions expressed are not unfiltered outpourings onto the page, or that poets revise and revise and revise to achieve, among other things, rhythm and sound patterning. So how might teaching students to consider the lyric differently contribute to our discussions with them about vocation?

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Form and Formation III: The Art of Adaptation

Even without reading recent studies of Americans’ streaming habits, we’d probably all guess that far more content is being streamed now than prior to the pandemic. I’ve been fascinated by the number of adaptations available on streaming services both in back catalogs and as original content: adaptations of novels, of movies, of comic books, of biographies. Adaptations are as old as narrative itself (the oral tradition is an adaptive tradition), but the presence of streaming content in our lives seems to make them newly ubiquitous. For those of us who love adaptations, streaming services provide treasure after treasure. It’s a fascinating genre, offering us the familiar and the alien simultaneously—creating within us a kind of comfortable discomfort that doesn’t seem too risky. 

As a genre, adaptations can help us shape conversations about vocation. While it may not seem odd to say that we adapt to new situations, it may sound very odd to say that we are ourselves adaptations. Yet this may be useful. The word “adaptation” has multiple definitions: the action of adapting one thing to another; the state of being suitable for a particular purpose or place; a revised version of a text or other creative work. In its multiple definitions, it signifies both process and product. Our lives are a series of adaptations, not only as we continually reshape ourselves to new forms and contexts but also as we embody each state of being newly shaped. I think that most of us have a sense of self that at its core seems constant—a kind of source text that is unchanging—but also conceive of ourselves as changing over time, as not being the same person as we were years ago. As we are re-purposed over and over again, we must rearticulate our vocations as well.

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Form and Formation II: The Limits of Self-Help

Self-help literature has had an amazing shelf life. From medieval morality plays to Renaissance courtesy books to Victorian conduct literature to contemporary best-sellers, it pushes transformation while itself being continuously transformed. On Amazon today, anyone beginning a search for self-help will find 28 different categories for browsing. The S’s alone tell us volumes about our culture: Self-Esteem, Sex, Spiritual, Stress Management, Success. 

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Form and Formation I: Narrative Expectations

In all of my literature courses that include British modernism, that first short story on the reading list inevitably prompts the question, “where’s the rest of it?” James Joyce, Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf—all rejected previous narrative forms and instead structured their early twentieth-century fiction around heightened “moments of being,” to use Woolf’s term, or “epiphanies,” to use Joyce’s. Because nineteenth-century narrative form still dominates our expectations, however, modernist fiction can seem plotless and pointless to students. We want a narrator who guides and interprets for us and we expect rising and falling action, hinged by conflict.

But is realist fiction actually realistic? Does it reflect our lived experiences, or does the modernist innovation of the literary epiphany—those heightened moments of significance around which narratives are structured—offer us a different realism? If fictions provide insight into the human condition and stimulate the moral imagination, then a modernist disruption of our narrative expectations can offer students a different, possibly more “real” narrative understanding of their own lives.   

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