Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Another empty word I'd like to banish from student papers

The next student who tells me that a certain poem "has flow" is going to be beaten about the shoulders with a sack full of Deeper Meaning.

Rivers flow. Blood flows. Sentences flow--some of them--when they're constructed with precision. Lines of poetry may flow, but only when appropriate; sometimes lines of poetry prefer to stumble or fumble or jitterbug across the page. But okay, I get it: many lines of poetry are so smooth and lyrical that they flow pleasantly over the tongue, and many students seem to believe that "flow" is therefore the essential element that makes poetry poetry.

So poetry flows, but turn the verb into a noun and tell me that the poem "has flow" and I wonder whether the poem is suffering colon problems. Is it time to call the poetry doctor? 

"Flow," like "relatable," translates a student's subjective feeling into a handy term that appears to be pointing to specific characteristics of the poem without actually doing so. If "flow" is some substance a poem can possess, what does it look like and what is it made of? What contributes to that lyrical smoothness? How do the lines carry readers forward without interruption? Does "flow" grow out of punctuation (or the lack thereof) or sound or rhythm or some combination of elements? That's the level of detail I'd like to see in students' analyses, but instead they like to say the poem "has flow" and move on, as if they believe they've actually said something of substance.

And don't even get me started on "deeper meaning." Let's dabble in the shallows first--tell me how many end stops, how many commas, what sounds repeat, what images rise up off the page. Let's see how the words feel on our tongues, what they taste and smell and sound like--in fact, let's take the advice of Billy Collins's "Introduction to Poetry", which includes these lines:

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author's name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
"We have ways to make you talk," they tell the poem, "so you may as well open up and tell us what you really mean." But when the poem keeps mum, the torturers round up the usual suspects--Relatable! Flow! Deeper meaning!--and toss them into their papers as if they explained everything.

These words explain nothing. They don't even try. They simply gesture toward some subjective experience while deflecting attention from the elements that create that experience, which is exactly the opposite of what I want from a poetry analysis. Nevertheless, that's the kind of analysis that is flowing into my inbox this week. 

Yes, my inbox has flow. (Maybe I should call the e-mail doctor?)


Bardiac said...

I hate the "hidden meaning" approach to reading. There's nothing hidden (well, not in normal typography, though in a manuscript palimpsest, sure). It's all there, ink on paper, pixels of different colors, whatever. It's not hidden.

/steps off soapbox

Bev said...

That's what I tell them: words on the page, people. Look at the words on the page.