|1||In this collection of essays, the
pressing question raised by my title may not be "Why teach popular music?"
but "Why with Wordsworth?" Almost any other Romantic writer makes more sense
in this connection. Mary Shelley and Lord Byron not only contribute through
their works to contemporary culture, but themselves appear as icons of the
Romantic in works like The Bride of Frankenstein and Arcadia.
Coleridge and Keats keep a lower contemporary profile, but are enveloped
by an aura of opium and precocious death that makes it not altogether absurd
to connect them to popular culture. Wordsworth, on the other hand, makes
a point of his discomfort with a culture of "outrageous stimulation" (747).
"Wordsworth and Rock 'n Roll" is a pairing guaranteed to highlight the risk
involved in any juxtaposition of high and low culture in the classroomwhich
is, that it will seem simultaneously to vulgarize what ought to be pure
and to intellectualize what ought to be gritty and authentic.
|2||I sometimes do introduce contemporary
culture in less embarrassing ways: film versions of Frankenstein,
film versions of Austen. But I've focused here on the connection between
popular music and Wordsworth because it's the one I find indispensable in
the Romantic-period survey I teach every year. Film versions of novels can
raise many interesting questions, but the questions they raise most insistentlyabout
the different emphases of novelistic and filmic narrativeare tangential
to my purpose in a period survey. Works of historical imagination like Stoppard's
Arcadia or the various Byron-Shelley vampire stories, on the other
hand, take "Romanticism" too directly as their subject.1
In a senior seminar, it would be fascinating to discuss these authors' use
of the R-word. But in the survey course, I want students' ideas about isms
to coalesce only very slowly and tentatively from an acquaintance with specific
works. I'm afraid that a consistent and vividly-colored caricature of "Romanticism"
would prove more memorable than the inconsistency of the period itself.
|3||Why, then, do I pair Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey"
with 80s and 90s rock? There are specific thematic and historical connections
to be made, about which I'll say a word or two. But my real pedagogical
agenda, I've come to realize, has less to do with those specific connections
than it does with the fate of lyricand perhaps especially of Wordsworthian
lyricin the classroom. I bring popular music into the period survey
because I find that my students' definition of "the lyric" needs to be challenged
and enlarged before they have much chance of perceiving anything lyrical
|4||I teach students who have done well
in high school, and know perfectly well what a lyric poem is. A lyric, as
you may know, is a condensed literary form in which a single speaker explores
a process of thought or feeling. It's less clear what you do with one once
you recognize it. Because students read and discuss novels outside of class,
they're comfortable asking questions based on their understanding of novelistic
pleasure: Are the characters fully developed? Is the ending satisfying?
Those questions can then lead to other, less obvious, questions. When they
approach lyric poetry, students don't have the same base to start from,
and so they're inclined to jump directly to the level of meaning, and beyond
that, to the periodizing generalities they believe constitute "knowledge
of literary history."
|5||In my view, this hasty leap to periodization
short-circuits the whole course. My own research is historical, and I certainly
do want my students to think historically about poetry. But it's an enterprise
without much content if they don't yet understand the category of experience
about which they are forming generalizations.
|6||My sympathies are with the students
in this matter. Like most of my students, and for that matter like most
of my colleagues, I didn't grow up hearing poems read out loud. I encountered
written poetry mainly in the classroom, while my emotional life was braided
into and constituted by a different lyric form, called "the single." Under
those circumstances, it's possible to come to the conclusion that you "like
poetry," without connecting that liking closely to the identificatory surprise
and sense of suspended volition you feel when reciting your favorite song
lyrics. One learns to look to written poetry only for kinds of lyric expression
that are rare in popular cultureinvolving absolute negative capability,
for instance, and an unconsoled engagement with human mortality. This definition
of poetry (which makes it, in effect, the inverse image of popular sentimentality)
works well as an introduction to some poetssay, Rilke, Rimbaud, and
Keats. But it's not an especially good approach to Wordsworth. In my case,
real appreciation of Wordsworth didn't come until graduate school.
|7||There's a good case to be made that
this delay is inevitablethat Wordsworth's apparent innocence and actual
complexity make it difficult for him to reach twenty-year-old readers on
the first pass. I'm thinking of Peter J. Manning's essay "On Failing to
Teach Wordsworth," which makes this case with a candor and an eloquence
I admire. Manning points out that a pattern of cognitive failure, followed
by delayed understanding, has a certain aptness here. If our students find
Wordsworth's "spots of time" opaque and unmanageable the first time they
encounter them, it shouldn't surprise us: so did Wordsworth. But this needn't,
of course, limit our pedagogical aspirations. J. S. Mill was 22 when "the
fact of my reading Wordsworth for the first time" appeared to him "an important
event in my life" (149), andMill's famous precocity notwithstandingother
students the same age can have the same reaction.
|8||Many of the barriers to appreciation
lie in learned expectations about poetry that serve Wordsworth poorly. It
will surprise no one to learn that the New-Critical approach to poetry that
still dominates our classroom practice enshrines certain modernist preferences
as general laws. In particular, as I have already hinted, New-Critical pedagogy
defines written lyric poetry as an inverse image of popular sentimentality.
A poem is a free-associative subspecies of the riddle; it rigorously avoids
the paraphrasable. To appreciate it is to be able to explain the relevance
of each apparent non-sequitur. Doing this reveals that you are capable of
fresh and authentic experience, as distinguished from the stock responses
we relegate to greeting-card verse and popular music.
|9||To students who have passed through
this program of modernist training, the best Wordsworthian lines ("and oh,
/ The difference to me") often look more like greeting-card verse than they
do like poetry.2
Wordsworth's lyrics lack the imagistic riddle-structure they have learned
to expect in written poems; by contrast, they appear sentimental and didactic.
One response to this obstacle would be to compromise, and to stress the
sense in which Wordsworth's poems are, after all, riddles of a psychological
kind. Another would be to launch a direct assault on modernism's expansion
of negative capability into a law that there are "no ideas but in things"
(Williams 6). Both these responses are cogent, but given the limited space
of a twelve-week semester, it occurred to me that a pedagogical shortcut
might be to remind students that they already in fact enjoyand see
a discussable complexity inrhymed ballads that don't hesitate to comment
on human experience directly. By bringing popular music into the classroom,
I hoped to show students that the modernist standards they impose on written
poetry are not universal, while reminding them that they already have a
definition of the lyric that makes as much room for eloquence and identificatory
pleasure as it does for riddle-solving.
This was a move that made particular sense to me because the music popular in my own college years was specifically Romantic. Kate Bush did the Brontės in several voices, Pink Floyd did the "Immortality Ode,"
When I was a childand Bono fell upon the thorns of life, bled, and became the trumpet of a prophecy so simultaneously political and personal that it must have made Shelley's scattered ashes blush.3
The trickiest part of actually teaching these connections, I find, is
to avoid a rigidly comparative subordination of contemporary texts to
the Romantics that would negate the whole point of the assignment. The
first time I tried this sort of thing, it came at the end of the semester,
as a kind of coda. I used Peter Gabriel, "Solsbury Hill" (1977) and U2,
"Where the Streets Have no Name" (1985), and asked students to compare
them to Wordsworth and Shelley, respectively. But in setting up discussion,
I moved much too quickly, naively expecting that the song lyrics themselves
would be reasonably transparent to the students, so that we would be able
to skim over the usual groundwork of interpretation and move quickly into
a comparison to Romantic texts they had already read. Of course, the lyrics
weren't transparent; even when the themes are Romantic, rock lyrics often
move according to an associative logic more difficult to decode than Wordsworth's
double negatives. The students panicked and froze, and I felt even more
desolate than I do when they fail to understand Romantic texts.
I was operating with the naļve assumption that popular culture is absorbed
directly by the ears, and that only high culture has to be mediated through
the analytic intelligence. In fact one can like a song for a long time
without wondering what one likes, just as one can like "Kubla Khan" for
a long time without wondering whether there are one or several speakers.
This admittedly qualifies my original pedagogical rationale. I had reasoned
that students already see the complexity in rock lyrics, and that it should
only be necessary to connect popular culture to Romanticism in order to
allow their existing proficiency in the lyric mode to spill over into
the classroom. In fact, in both domains, it takes the same effort to move
from uncritical to analytic appreciation. In spite of this, I think the
connection remains worth making: after students are surprised by the difficulty
of popular lyrics, they are much readier to believe that lyric poems can
be apparently simple, actually difficult, and nevertheless enjoyable.
The practical lesson I took away from my mistake was essentially this:
to get the effect I want out of teaching popular culture, I have to set
things up so that students perceive the text as belonging to their domain
of expertise. This doesn't necessarily mean that it has to be last year's
hit; there is a canonicity in popular music that immunizes certain older
songs against dismissive periodization. On the other hand, it does mean
that I no longer present popular music at the end of the semester and
ask students to look for Romantic themes. That has two bad effects: first,
it reifies Romanticism, and second, it paralyzes students who don't yet
have the historical confidence to articulate significant parallels. Instead
I teach popular music before the Romantic text I plan to link it
to, and I encourage students not to worry about the historical connection
just yet. I warm up the discussion the same way I would warm up any other
discussionwhich is to say that I begin with the sorts of questions
students are likely to ask themselves about the songs. Then I try to let
those questions motivate a harder question about the meaning of some contemporary
lyric convention. In the next class session, I read the Romantic text
as a historical answer.
For instance, I recently taught Gabriel's "Solsbury Hill" (1977), Melissa
Etheridge's "My Back Door" (1989), and Live's "Lightning Crashes" (1994)
as a kind of introduction to "Tintern Abbey." One thing the three songs
have in common with each other, and with Abrams's Natural Supernaturalism,
is a three-part pattern of connection, loss, and return to a (now transformed)
connection. This is clearest in the Etheridge song, which is a straightforward
narrative, tracing a union with the world that the speaker experiences
as a child, loses, and rediscovers in the form of political commitment.
A similar pattern is implicit, but very confusing, in "Lightning Crashes." On the narrative level, that song recounts the death of a woman and the birth of a child in the same hospital. Something passes from the dying woman to the child; it might be "a motion and a spirit, that impels / All thinking things," or it might just be "the burden of the mystery." As the song puts it, "The confusion that was here / Belongs now to the baby down the hall." The song's choruses stand at a 90-degree angle to this action; it's not clear who the speaker is, but the lack of specificity suggests that the choruses are giving a lyrical interpretation of the action rather than participating in it:
I can feel it coming back againIt's important to know that the whole song is a crescendo, and that the crescendo takes place most markedly during the two choruses. This, combined with the repetition of "I can feel it," tends to suggest that what's "coming back" is not just "life," but a renewed power to feel. But the song doesn't specify when or how that feeling was lost, and it does little to explain the connection between its celebration of subjective renewal and the cycle of life and death it describes. There's only the implied link between "lightning crashes" and "rolling thunder," which vaguely suggests that one kind of renewal follows on the other.
Discussion ended on this perplexity. The next day, we went on to "Tintern
Abbey," discussing it entirely in its own right. It's a sufficiently perplexing
poem on its own. But after we had wondered why anyone would enjoy "Flying
from something that he dreads," unknitted the chronology, and recognized
a familiar pattern of connection, loss, and connection in a different
form, I was able to say some things about the Romantic secularization
of redemption narrative that received (I think) a much more attentive
hearing than they would have if the students hadn't seen that Wordsworth
was in the process of inventing a lyric pattern they know well. I was
then almost (but not quite) able to convince them that "Lightning Crashes"
is able to be vague about the connection between its cycle of life and
its cycle of subjective renewal because we have "Tintern Abbey" in our
blood, and half-automatically infer that the point of perceiving a spirit
(or a burden of "confusion") that rolls through all things is to rediscover
a (now articulate and conscious) connection to that spirit.
As I say, I'm not entirely sure that the students in this particular
class were willing to buy the notion that Romantic lyric forms live on,
unseen, in the interpretive assumptions they bring to rock and roll. But
this hardly matters. My pedagogical aim was not to get them to believe
that proposition, or even to believe that rock's cycles of secular redemption
are inherited from what Abrams calls "the Greater Romantic Lyric." Those
were the subjects we discussed, but these class sessions contributed to
the semester more importantly through their unstated presupposition: that
popular music and "Tintern Abbey" can offer experiences of the same order
To lead students to this realization, I continue to believe an indirect
approach is best. I don't preface my introduction of popular music with
any apology, attack on elitism, or baptism in cultural theory; my students
would rightly be suspicious of a formal argument in favor of pleasures
they already know. On the other hand, prompted in part by our discussion
in the Romantic Circles conference on this topic,4
I am beginning to see ways this unit could logically lead up to
a discussion of cultural theory. As I suggested at the beginning of this
essay, the conjunction of Wordsworth and popular music is a strange one
in part because Wordsworth himself so explicitly resists the dominant
culture of his own time. By linking that culture to "the encreasing accumulation
of men in cities," distinguishing it from authentically popular lyric
expression, and identifying its chief defect as artificiality, Wordsworth
articulates one of the earliest critiques of modern popular culture as
"mass culture" (746).
It would make a great deal of sense, then, to move from a discussion
of Wordsworthian patterns in popular music, to a discussion of Wordsworth's
own embryonic theory of "mass culture." The next time I teach this material,
I plan to save the "Preface" to Lyrical Ballads for the class immediately
after our discussion of "Tintern Abbey," and I may follow it with Adorno
and Horkheimer on "The Culture Industry."
I would like students to become conscious of Romantic cultural theory
so that they can resist its unexamined presence in their thinking. I don't
myself make a distinction between authentic "popular culture" and "mass
culture," and I'm unpersuaded by the firm distinctions that Wordsworth
and Adorno erect. Though I agree that contemporary culture is shaped by
market forces, and pervaded by ideology, I don't think this state of affairs
is particularly new: culture was informed by power long before the invention
of the record company or the gothic drama. We do need to distinguish more
and less democratic means of cultural production. But the terms of a distinction
between "popular" and "mass" culture often seem to me to encourage, not
pragmatic reflection on specific institutions, but nostalgia for a lost
Eden where individual consciousness and the culture of the group are supposed
to have coincided without mediation by any institutions at all.5
I doubt that it is either possible or desirable for culture to work that
way, and for that reason I approach the popular/mass distinction skeptically.
I'm coming to see that it is nevertheless necessary to talk about this
distinction in a Romantic-period survey, because a critical examination
of the idea of popular authenticity, as it appears in the "Preface," brings
our discussion of the lyric full circle. I want students to challenge
modernist myths about written poetry: especially the idea that all poems
aspire to be "palpable and mute / As a globed fruit" (MacLeish 141). Rejecting
that narrow definition permits them to bring to Wordsworth an intensely
identificatory reading strategy that they associate mainly with electronic
media. But in doing this, I now realize, it is equally necessary to challenge
a complementary myth: the notion that truly authentic or "popular" culture
is a natural secretion of the social organism, and as such is received
directly by our limbic system without political or intellectual mediation.
That account would describe Percy's Reliques as poorly as it describes
a compact disc. By using popular music to dislodge modernist idealizations
of high culture, and a critical reading of Wordsworth to dislodge romantic
(and late-Marxist) idealizations of popular authenticity, I hope to encourage
a reading of lyric that is passionate and yet clear-eyed about the social
underpinnings of culture.
Romantic Circles - Home / Praxis Series / Romanticism and Contemporary Culture / Ted Underwood, "How to Save 'Tintern Abbey' from New-Critical Pedagogy (in Three Minutes Fifty-Six Seconds)"