Sunday, October 18, 2009

Aimless Reading: The D's, Part 43.1 (Robert Duncan)

Duncan, Robert
The Opening of the Field

Purchased at Talking Leaves...Books. For someone who is basically lukewarm about most of Duncan's work, I sure do own a lot of his books. This one is probably my favorite, or, at least, it contains my favorite poem of his, that is, the most famous of his poems, "Often I Am Permitted To Return to a Meadow." I would put that one in my personal poetry anthology for sure.

One of my favorite teaching experiences involved using that poem. I was teaching a comp class in grad school in which I was teaching the students a lot about literature and very little about composition -- a common ailment among grad students. Anyhow, we sure had fun not learning about comp. We spent six whole weeks focused entirely on "Often I Am Permitted To Return to a Meadow."

In the first week, I gave the students some ancillary reading on Frances Yates and classical memory systems, then asked them to imagine the poem as a memory system and then to devise some sort of visual representation of the poem as a memory system using whatever plastic medium they desired. They also had to show how each of the mnemonic devices within the system would help someone remember the individual lines of the poem in order to recite it by heart. They then had to recite the poem from memory.

Following that, we started discussing the concept of close reading. I asked them to do a reading of the poem and to present it before the class. They were allowed to interpret the poem however they saw fit, but without reference to any criticism. One kid, who was an evangelical Christian, gave an amazingly thorough and wrongheaded reading of the poem as being about personal redemption through Christ. I gave him an A for effort, as it was the most carefully thought out paper in the class.

Finally, I gave them some sections from Duncan's notebooks and various other critical pieces related to the poem and assigned them a research paper. I think I probably should have quit at the previous exercise, but I was having too much fun. "Often I Am Permitted To Return to a Meadow" really lends itself to all kinds of interesting activities and I wanted to take a single lyric poem as far as I could with this class.

I remember it all very fondly. Whether the students do or not is another story entirely.

Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow

as if it were a scene made-up by the mind,
that is not mine, but is a made place,

that is mine, it is so near to the heart,
an eternal pasture folded in all thought
so that there is a hall therein

that is a made place, created by light
wherefrom the shadows that are forms fall.

Wherefrom fall all architectures I am
I say are likenesses of the First Beloved
whose flowers are flames lit to the Lady.

She it is Queen Under The Hill
whose hosts are a disturbance of words within words
that is a field folded.

It is only a dream of the grass blowing
east against the source of the sun
in an hour before the sun's going down

whose secret we see in a children's game
of ring a round of roses told.

Often I am permitted to return to a meadow
as if it were a given property of the mind
that certain bounds hold against chaos,

that is a place of first permission,
everlasting omen of what is.

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