Interview: Charles Altieri, professor of Modern poetry

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Karin Goh /Staff

If literature has any one use, it is chiefly as a means of sharing and experiencing great pleasure. That’s what UC Berkeley professor Charles Altieri would argue, anyway, and he’s not afraid to say it — the scholar of Modernist poetry preaches, examines and enjoys the likes of W.B. Yeats and Wallace Stevens in his courses, sometimes to the miscomprehension and often to the amusement of his students. Altieri walked his dog, Bixby, with The Daily Californian to discuss and uncover some of the joys of his work, discussing some of his favorite poets and poems along the way.

The Daily Californian: As a professor, how do you figure out what you value and what you’re going for when you’re faced with a new class?

Charles Altieri: It helps when you know what you can’t do, like appeal to large groups. So then you define yourself either as a failure or as having a different orientation, which I’ve managed to convince myself of. One of the most disappointing things that you realize as a young teacher is that the class is not going to put as much energy in as you do. One of the reasons why you almost have to write as a teacher is because if you put all of your efforts into teaching, you’ll be miserable. At least for me, that was my discovery. Because they just don’t care as much, and they can’t, because it’s just a piece of their lives.

DC: Even in the classroom where there’s a mixed bag, are there certain courses that do better than others, or certain poems?

CA: Usually the poets I like best, I have the hardest time teaching, because you want to say too much and you want to make people like it, which means you’ve got to deal with complexities. It works the other way, too. For a long time, I didn’t like Marianne Moore that much, but I could teach her well. And finally I got to really like her because the language worked, and eventually it worked on me. But Stevens, for example, I just can’t teach, partially because I love him and because what I love about him is the gap between the language and the thought. It could actually be very slight unless you work the poem. With (an Ezra) Pound poem, it hits you in the head — I’m going to have to think about this. With Stevens, it seems like he may be stating his dreams. So it’s more of an enterprise to make the bridge. I guess for me, that’s all teaching is — teaching people how to ask questions, which makes them miserable, and teaching them that there are ways of answering these questions. But they depend on a certain amount of familiarity.

DC: Classroom conversation often leads you to just have to sit there waiting for someone that’s not you to say something. How do you respond?

CA: I can’t stand it. I just start talking again.

DC: Is that something that’s been long-standing at UC Berkeley? Is that a constant struggle of teaching? Has it changed over time?

CA: The classes at Berkeley will at least try, usually. I don’t care if they can reproduce knowledge — I only care about the production of energy. The capacity to be turned on by their own activity in the relation to the work, that’s really what I want.

DC: Is that the reason you can teach the same poem over and over again?

CA: Oh, absolutely. I don’t believe in relativity of interpretation, but I believe in the relative intensity of interpretive activity.

DC: How has your experience differed with graduate students versus undergraduates?

CA: Graduate students are different in that their business is to please you. Their lives are in your hands — they need your letters, they need your support. There’s much less overcoming of resistance. It’s much easier.

DC: I was talking to a professor recently who said she doesn’t believe anyone should be pursuing a doctorate in the humanities in the current academic climate. What’s your take?

CA: That’s a really tough one, if you’re young and if you’re willing to not have a job but to get four or five years of what used to be undergraduate education, to be really educated in something. From the point of view of the students, I think it’s still a useful institution. Undergraduate education just doesn’t produce many powers for knowledge and pleasure and comparative aesthetics. I’m not sure if it’s in society’s interest to continue producing more Ph.D.s, but there will be gaps. The present system of replacing tenure-track jobs via adjuncts who have to do two or three courses without benefits — that’s got to stop. If anybody had nerve — like I make way too much money, because the system keeps rewarding you with more raises. I’ve been teaching 40-something years, right? I get a lot of raises. And my kids are grown up. So if they could move the top a quarter down, they could hire full-time young people. Some sort of solution like that is going to occur, so it’s important to have pressure on the system. The current one is just untenable. We need literature teachers.

We’ve had a lot of loss of enrollment (in the English department) in the past two years, but I think it’s less to science than to the business school, film program — things that have a certain kind of currency but aren’t disciplined in the way science is.

DC: Did you ever write poetry?

CA: Yeah, but I was terrible. I was in my last year of graduate school, reading all the great Modernists, and I’d compare what I was writing to them and say, “This is no good.”

DC: Why the poets, why modernism?

CA: It’s a cross between sheer narcissism — which is a great pleasure — performing how your mind works and having anybody take it seriously. I’m not sure it’s a deep cause of social goodness, but it’s a deep pleasure. I just got mad at Modernism because I didn’t understand it, the sheer intelligence of (T.S.) Eliot, Stevens and Pound as prose writers. I came to believe that what they are doing is interesting and that I could figure it out.

DC: Do you have favorite poems, something that you live by?

CA: It’s not a question I’ve been posed before. I have two different modes. There’s one mode in which I read and remember individual poems: “Leda and the Swan,” “The Irish Airman,” “He & She” — that’s my little Yeats fandom. But then there’s this other mode, where you’re really thinking about the writer more than particular poems. I have to take Robert Frost seriously in a way I’ve never done. The other thing for me is that the relation both to philosophy and the other arts is as important as the text for me. So the sense of thinking comparatively, using the questions of one to address the efforts of another, that’s what really pleases me. That’s hard to teach, actually, but it sustains you.

The most important thing I do is try to teach ways of taking pleasure in the material and in yourself engaging with the material. So it’s, in one sense, totally decadent — sort of spreading the narcissism around. But on the other hand, what’s more important than having varieties of pleasure? All of literature is like that — delicately irrelevant and also the most relevant thing you can imagine because it’s about sources and structures of pleasure. And pleasure is always distinguished: We feel guilty about it, but we feel miserable when we don’t have it. That’s kind of the difficulty of literature teachers in general. It’s hard not to lie to yourself when your life is devoted to pleasure. That’s what I really think about the use of what I do, and I think it’s important.

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