Art is “Ask[ing] questions that don’t give answers”

Posted: March 10, 2017 in Syllabus and Introductory Material

Your next two assignments involve writing about poetry.  First we’ll look at how they want you to respond on the AP exam with Tackling the AP Poetry prompt 2017.  In preparation for this, be sure to read, summarize each poem, and characterize the relationships explored in each poem by class on 3/14.

Then, which is much more fun, we’ll write about poetry a bit more openly and less mechanically with our Poetry Reflection assignment.  For this, do some exploring. Sure you can check out canonical poetry like the stuff in our book, but I think Poetry Foundation is much more fun.  (I mean, just listen to one of the recordings of the Douglas Kearney poems:).)  They have a nice list of women’s poetry for Women’s History Month and lots of other classic and current stuff.  Try to find something you like, even if you don’t understand it.  Wait, then I might be wrong.  Well, like Emerson said, “Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.”  Support your ideas, but don’t be afraid of them.

Still worried about things like “What if this isn’t what the author meant?”  click below.

“Wait, there’s no key to tell us what this means?”  After going through our sound devices and a few works like “The Sick Rose” and “My Papa’s Waltz,” I floated the idea that artists and writers often won’t give the answers — won’t tell you what their work is about.  In fact, even if we do know the author’s intent, that doesn’t mean we know everything about what the work means — known in New Criticism as intentional fallacy — because they’ve created something and, just like TNT, Agent Orange, microwaves, nuclear fusion and Tang, what an inventor intends is not always what the invention is or becomes.  Unlike New Critics, however, this doesn’t mean we need to exclude the author or the author’s intent entirely.  We just need to realize sometimes there is more.  Colbert expresses the idea well here: artists (and authors) “ask questions that don’t give answers.

I like the way Billy Collins puts it too:

Introduction to Poetry

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
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.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

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