Thursday, October 20, 2005

John Donne: the Meatloaf of his age

So I do this thing when teaching poetry and my students just aren't getting it: I paraphrase it for them, usually trying to make it funny. As teaching techniques go, it isn't bad ... it relaxes the class, gives them a sense of the poem's big picture, and lets them know that the material isn't merely arcane code designed to frustrate them.

But then there are times when I wonder if I don't perhaps take it beyond the point of usefulness. Yesterday, for example.

We're doing John Donne's poetry this week, which is a joy to teach: it's beautiful, striking, and all about sex. What's not to like? Anyway, we started with "The Flea," in which Donne addresses his would-be lover, who is presumably refusing his advances -- or at least not letting him get to home plate. But look, says Donne, this flea that just bit me has bitten you (eww--bathe much?). Our two bloods have mingled in this little guy! It's like we're married already! Can we get busy now?

Or something like that. I think the nadir of my paraphrasing came when I compared "The Flea" to those torturous arguments made in the back seats of cars by teenage boys to their dates. "You might say," I continued in a rhetorical flourish that I'm glad I didn't make during my thesis examination, "that 'The Flea' is the 'Paradise by the Dashboard Lights' of Jacobean poetry."

Yup. I said that. It's the kind of thing that would probably give Harold Bloom a massive coronary, but I have to imagine it's got its negative aspects too.

On the other hand, there might be something to this Meatloaf-John Donne connection. One could certainly explore it in a scholarly article, especially in terms of Donne's lesser-read poem "Bat Fleeing Hades":

Like the black-wingèd bat that flieth swift
From the darkling halls of infernal Dís,
So I soon from thy lap will flee, upon
The early tremblings of rosy-cheek’d dawn.

Or we could look at Meatloaf's "Elegy on his Mistress Tripping Out." Or Donne's unpublished mansucript Ballades of Powere (Occasioned by the Great Tavernne Fyre).

Truly, a fruitful area for literary research.


Lesley said...

How can anyone not love John Donne? My favourite is The Good Morrow and I'm sure there were a few others in there that we had to study for English. The paraphrasing sounds hilarious. But I think it's just the students who need to relax and stop worrying so much about their grades and ENJOY the poems. Poetry should be savoured and not just rushed through to find the meaning. There's so much in there to see and gather.

Or maybe I'm just a big poetry geek who needs to get over it.

jo said...

My favourite paraphrase of a canonical poem has got to be Wendy Cope's Waste Land Limericks:


In April one seldom feels cheerful;
Dry stones, sun and dust make me fearful;
Clairvoyantes distress me,
Commuters depress me–
Met Stetson and gave him an earful.


She sat on a mighty fine chair,
Sparks flew as she tidied her hair;
She asks many questions,
I make few suggestions–
Bad as Albert and Lil–what a pair!


The Thames runs, bones rattle, rats creep;
Tiresias fancies a peep–
A typist is laid,
A record is played–
Wei la la. After this it gets deep.


A Phoenician named Phlebas forgot
About birds and his business–the lot,
Which is no surprise,
Since he’d met his demise
And been left in the ocean to rot.


No water. Dry rocks and dry throats,
Then thunder, a shower of quotes
From the Sanskrit and Dante.
Da. Damyata. Shantih.
I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.

Mark P said...

The sad thing is, soon your students will be as unfamiliar with Meat Loaf as they are with John Donne.

Esme B J Lee said...

Hello, I am trying to find the full text of Donne's Bat poem. Do you have the full text or know where I can find it? I have the selected and it is not there.