Blog Post

Back to Work

I have to finish my lab report! In the last week, I’ve come to love this genre. It’s built to describe surprising discoveries, and O’Hara was all about making “a poem a surprise!” (“Today”).

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RESULTS: 1. One poem. 2. Energized, savvy students. 3. New data, for me, on the research-teaching question.

INDICATIONS re #3:  

As I thought to myself this past week about airing what happened when we walked O’Hara back into the classroom, I heard an insidious “oh, this is all about teaching, blah blah blah, moving on” reaction. And I heard it from me.

That reaction is both anticipated externally and experienced internally; it’s gendered and generational; it’s institutional and personal; it’s problematic and perfunctory; it's shared and unique; but it is what it is.

I’m working through a discrete phase of the academic career trajectory. Ugh: can you imagine O’Hara using the phrase “career trajectory?” Much less “academic career trajectory?” Nonetheless, the first semester out of a PhD program and in a job is just that, a recognizable phase that you make your own.   Professionally, this phase is in large part about recalibrating the balance between “your work” and … well, also “your work.”  It’s about redefining what “your work” is and does.

I thought about the dining hall experiment entirely in terms of what it might open up for a group of students reading O'Hara for the first time. I didn’t at all anticipate that the experiment would get me thinking, at least as much, about my work on O’Hara or about the Research v. Teaching Question.   No, these are not an unlooked-for results on the level of, say, the discovery of penicillin. Still, reading Lunch Poems in the Dickinson Hub got me thinking newly about how I read O’Hara’s work. It got me thinking about the unit of the volume.

So how do I, in my work, read Lunch Poems? I don’t. At least not in “my work” as I would’ve defined it 4 months ago.

I do, however, read O’Hara, and read him almost defiantly, by volume. I experiment with what happens to the consolidated image of O’Hara if you read the first, unpublished book of poems written by this nonchalant, cavalier stuffer-of-poems-into-dresser-drawers and writer-of-poems-on-the-backs-of-dry-cleaning-receipts. The charming, quotable quality of O’Hara’s work can corroborate, almost reflexively, his own insistent self-description.  

Among the things I loved about reading Lunch Poems in the dining hall was that the experiment had space for the variability of the poet’s persona and his poems.  Habitual interpolation of charming phrases into a single sentence of critical prose can smooth out O’Hara’s 20-ish-year career.  Sometimes, sure, you need that kind of synthetic approach.  But this dining hall reading had an instructively meditative, patient, expansive quality. Ten pages in all I could think about was how it was so loud and the table was so long and the students were having so much trouble hearing one another that maybe we should just stop. But no, I stuck with it, “after practically going to sleep with quandariness.” (See what I mean? It’s so easy!)

Variability here refers not to the “uneven” quality of the Lunch Poems lyrics, but rather to something more capacious—and more consequential.  As we kept going through the book; as students kept coming and going for refills or sandwiches or off to their next classes; as minds kept wandering and returning; and as voices and giggles circled back around the table, I heard how the volume works on its readers.  We had time to hear O'Hara change, react, revert, recalculate, daydream, snap out of it, reflect, opine, discriminate, crack himself up, and even be quiet.  But wait: wasn’t this reading also “my work?”

I think we need to read O’Hara by volume, rather than (only) by selective quotation from across his career.   I could go on and on about why I think this and about why this stance is particularly important with respect to O'Hara.  Yet until last week I hadn’t experienced my own intellectual reasoning.  It’s not a kind of experience I typically build into my research methodology. Nor would I, necessarily. As a case in point: a student asked if we could read Ariel in the dining hall this week. Er, no… but it’s useful to think about why Plath wouldn’t work at the same Bat Time on the same Bat Channel, so to speak. Poets—like lines, like poems, like volumes—are not fungible.

Assistant Professor of English, Dickinson College
Claire Seiler's research and teaching focus on modern and contemporary literature and culture in the U.S., England, and Ireland. Her work makes an inquiry of inconspicuous terms that inform twentieth-century literary criticism, among them "midcentury" (which she investigates in her first-book-in-progress, titled "Midcentury Suspension") and the "generation" (the problematic category that organizes her next project, on twentieth-century poetics). Her work has been published in Twentieth-Century Literature, Comparative Literature, Modernism/Modernity, and elsewhere.