I wanted to organize the study of poetry in a way that would not privilege one poet, school of poetry, or form over another. Granted, this is really an idealistic goal - we are bound to lean more towards the poets and schools and even forms that attract us... we're only human. Still, as developing poets, we have an advantage of not being completely beholden to any preference; we can easily go from adoring the Beats to adoring the metaphysical poets to only enjoying the work of one poet, say Dorothy Parker, and so on.
I feel it is essential for a developing poet to expose himself to as wide a spectrum of poetry as possible, so I had to take away the ability to easily choose a preferred school of poetry. This is, of course, how college courses on poetry are organized - the Romantics, the Fireside Poets, the Modernists - so it is our default setting. However, grouping poets like Whitman and Dickinson with their contemporaries Longfellow and Emerson doesn't always make the most sense; there are other, perhaps better possibilities. So they existed and were writing at the same time - big deal! Their poetry is worlds away from one another. The same could be said for Ezra Pound and Robert Lowell or Nikki Giovanni and Kay Ryan. When a poet wrote should not be the only or primary way we approach that poet. It is true that a sense of the time a poet is writing in may offer advantages in understanding his or her work, but I feel like we end up pigeonholing a poet this way. I want us to be able to see that good poetry can mean long after the poet and his or her time has died.
I also don't believe who a poet is should determine how we approach that poet's work. Yes, if I am a Latina looking for some poetry that reflects my experience, picking up a book on "Latin Women Poets" might lead me to poets I am better able to empathize with. However, what would I miss if I only read that book of poets? What do I miss, as a gay man, when I only read gay poets? The identity of a poet is a useful way into their work, but I fear that it sometimes leads us away from work rather than moving us towards it; we use the identities of the poets to limit our exploration rather than expand it. Now, I am not a subscriber to the whole "the author is dead" mentality, but I do think the work should come before the person. Which is to say, just because Allen Ginsberg, Mark Doty, and Gertrude Stein are all homosexual, this doesn't mean that their poetry will be similar or even that their content will share tropes with one another. But we slip so easily into this kind of random grouping of poets. There are volumes on "Women poets," "African American" poetry, and "Asian" poetry, but this just seems so ludicrous (and somewhat offensive) to me. Northrop Frye, too, had a huge problem with this sort of grouping. He said:
It is all too easy to impose on literature an extra-literary schematism, a sort of religio-political color-filter, which makes some poets leap into prominence and others show up as dark and faulty. All that the disinterested critic can do with such a color-filter is to murmur politely that it shows things in a new light and is indeed a most stimulating contribution to criticism.What matters most is the work, so we have to find a way to see straight into the poetry itself. Frye offers up many solutions in Anatomy of Criticism, but the Theory of Archetypes (which has been thoroughly developed by later critics like Harold Bloom, Joseph Campbell, and Helen Vendler) offered me a system that just seemed to fit so perfectly with poetry: seasons.
Frye divided the seasons as follows:
Summer: RomanceThese broad categories represent the major mythos of all of literature. But, rather than thinking of these as categories, it is better to think of them as a sort of color wheel - these are the "primary colors" but there is an infinite number of ways that we can combine these primaries to create other colors.
Winter: Satire (or Dark Comedy)
Spring: Comedy (or Light Comedy)
In organizing this study, I use Frye's seasons as a launching off point and, rather than limiting each to one primary category, I offer five categories for each season:
Summer: Passion, Confession, Adventure, Sensuality, WillfulnessWhat I want to suggest with these categories is not a box in which a poet or a work exists exclusively, but a recognition of recurring themes, poetic techniques, words, and images. If a developing poet can begin to understand what is shared between poems of a certain categorical "season" rather than of a certain gender, ethnic, religious, geographic, or time-frame grouping, then that poet, I hope, can see beyond arbitrary limitations we tend to impose consciously or subconsciously on everything we read. I want the developing poet to be freed by the organization and structure offered here rather than limited by arbitrary groupings or paralyzed by the onslaught of all poets and all poems with no categories at all.
Autumn: Loss, War, Heroism, Emptiness, Longing
Winter: Struggle, Pain, Solipsism, Wit, Perseverance
Spring: Spirituality, Nature, Renewal, Romance, Connection
Also, in a practical way, the seasons create a very easy schema for creating a lesson plan (this can also be said for the arbitrary groups we currently use, which makes the practice somewhat understandable... though I clearly believe my/Frye's way to be superior). Depending on how much time an instructor has with students, she could spend one semester on a single season, or work through two or all all four in one semester. There's plenty of material here to at least lead into months (if not a year) of concentrated practice.
Of course, it is my hope that this would only be one tool in a dynamic classroom where the instructor creates his or her own spin on these seasons and the lessons. For example, an instructor could very easily lift the organizing principle and insert all new poets or exercises.
If a poet is using this site on her own, I would hope that the organization allows her easy browsing and continual discovery (which is why I have layered the text with hundreds of links to poetry, literature, history, and video web pages... with a few "just for fun" links to boot).