The following was Part III of a four part post on how to evaluate poetry that I posted on Hungrywriterspoetry.blogspot.com some time ago. Hungrywriters.blogspot.com is open - I think to anyone - but the other parts of the the blog need permission.
This is the long explanation about why it's both useful and personally rewarding to read good stuff carefully and slowly.
The best class I had in college was 17th Century English Literature. It was the hardest and the one in which I learned the most. Professor Clayton, probably in his 30s, seemed much older to my 20 year old self. His gaunt body moved constantly, his eyes darted around lighting first on one victim, then on another. “What did Donne mean in this poem?” he’d challenge. If your answer didn’t meet expectations you might be ignored, or worse, your response was dismissed as, “Rubbish!” If your reply was more than routine, he might lavish you with, “Point.” And if your answer showed actual insight, he might even say, “Point well taken.”
Needless to say, people quickly stopped raising their hands unless they were certain they knew the answer. Being rubbished was far more likely than being praised. But if there were no volunteers, he would select a sacrificial lamb. To avoid humiliation I began to study ferociously. On the midterm, I got a D. The essay part was fine.. But the exam also included a huge table with columns titled: Poet, birth date, death date, meter, rhyme scheme, imagery, line from a poem. Some of the boxes were filled in. Most were empty. And there was a long list, from a – zz, of the names, dates, and other words, that belonged in those empty boxes. We had to put the letters of each answer in the right boxes. That part of the test was unexpected and disastrous.
All the students who got D’s or F’s had to meet with Professor Clayton privately in his office. Much to my surprise, the cold and merciless professor in class, was warm and friendly in his office. This had been a rough semester for me altogether. My midterm grades were two D’s and two F’s. I launched a new study regimen. Class was from 8-11 every day. I worked from noon to five. I was in the library at six till midnight.
We read Paradise Lost in the second half of that semester and I had more notes than there was text. I noted the meter. I noted the rhyme scheme. I noted each character, the images used for each character, and everything the character did. I also noted Milton’s birth and death dates. I did this with every poet and every poem we had to read. I loved Paradise Lost. With this level of effort, I was starting to see patterns. This character was always surrounded by black, that one by fire. I began to anticipate things before they appeared on the page. Suddenly I was part of the poem and felt its complexity, saw the details I had missed the first half of the semester. I began raising my hand in class, and getting ‘Points’ and occasional “Points well taken.”
What I remember of the Final Exam was the mystery poem. The assignment was to identify the poet. I began to check the rhyme scheme and the meter. I found historical references and could eliminate those poets who had died before these events took place. Eventually, I had eliminated most of the poets. The color green was pervasive in this poem and so I chose Andrew Marvell as my likely poet.
I got a B in the class. My A on the final wasn’t enough to make up for the midterm. But that grade gave me more satisfaction than any A I got. Marvell was the mystery poet and I’d figured it out. In hindsight, I realize that this class didn't just teach me how to only read poetry, but how to read anything, to a depth that allowed me to find its heart. It also taught me that by memorizing what seemed like insignificant details, I could know enough to recognize pieces that fit together and ones that were out of place. I could logically figure out the mystery poet in any situation.
Professor Clayton taught me the value of concentrated work and discipline. He taught me that being prepared with in-depth knowledge, enabled me to take full advantage of the clues. While I decided that I would rather apply these skills to what I perceived as more useful areas than the works of long dead poets, this class on 17th Century English Literature was the class that taught me the most useful lessons of all my college courses.
[If anyone knows Dr. Clayton - I took his class in the English Department at UCLA in 1965 or 1966 - please pass this on to him with my most sincere and profuse thanks.]