I’ve been reading Thomas Foster’s “How to Read…” series in preparation for teaching AP this fall. This volume is probably the technical of the books, and not the least enjoyable by any stretch, but the least playful. It’s also the book that I probably most need since like Thomas Foster mentions repeatedly I both fit the English major and English grad student as well as the English teacher who skirted by having not read nearly as much poetry as I should have been forced to in my days. I am trying to reckon with that, and Foster is very effective not only of breaking down poems into their constituent parts, the thing I can do do perfectly well, but of looking through at poems for meaning and understanding, what I am less good at. He is also great at letting readers off the hook and clueing readers into both hidden clues and especially into hidden obfuscations. This is the part I most want to bring to my students, the right to be confused and not sure in reading poetry. Students do a few things that I try to stop them from doing, and not well. They love to just tell you the “point” of a poem. But this is a trick to avoid having to read it carefully. And sometimes they’re more or less right in their quick analysis. But too often they absolutely miss a) the point of poetry at large, to convey experience and idea and b) anything subtle or ironic in the original poem.
I will borrow a few chapters from this book for my class, especially the short chapter of speakers in poems because I think this idea of who is talking and what this tells us is the essential question of all literature, and the most important thing to discover about writing.