In “Difficult and Otherwise: New Work by Ruefle, Young, and Aleshire,” Peter Harris determines that a good number of contemporary poets write obscure poetry that refuses to cater “to the illusive ideal of a ‘common reader’ who has a need to ‘get it.’” The goal of poets such as Leslie Scalapino (Zither & Autobiography, 2003), Mary Ruefle, Dean Young (Skid, 2002), and Joan Aleshire (Litany of Thanks, 2003) is, Harris maintains, to “elude closure, embrace discontinuity, celebrate polyvalence” (the use of language that can have more than one meaning). The poets in this group came to be known as “local” poets, writing poetry, Harris explains, for readers “who know how to break a particular code” in a poem and thus find meaning. Reading their poetry can be a frustrating experience, however, for those who expect the images of a poem to come together to provide them with a clear understanding of its themes.
In this sense, these contemporary poets echo the work of the modernist poets, including T. S. Eliot (1888–1965), Ezra Pound (1885–1972), and Wallace Stevens (1879–1955). These poets wrote for an elite readership that could understand the allusive nature of their work and appreciate the poets’ experiments with the dislocation of language. Modernists determined that continuity, a clear relationship between parts of the poem, did not accurately reflect...
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The title, “Sentimental Education,” is most likely an allusion or reference to Sentimental Education, a novel by Gustave Flaubert (1821–1880) which chronicles the life of Frederic Moreau during the time of the French Revolution of 1848. Through his depiction of Frederic’s experiences in Paris where the young man gains his “sentimental education” concerning the workings of society, Flaubert satirizes France’s social classes, customs, and political institutions by focusing on the moral corruption and hypocrisy that he finds there. Frederic, whom Flaubert presents as a representative of his generation, enters the privileged bourgeois society with a passive acceptance of its social order. Unable to think independently, he becomes a voice for social conformity and prejudices in his refusal to recognize the injustices committed by those of his milieu. The allusion to Flaubert’s novel could suggest a thematic link to the poem’s focus on injustice. Clearly, there is nothing sentimental (sweet and attractive) in the education these children are really receiving in the parochial school.
Repetition of Sound
The repetition of vowel sounds in the poem (a technique called assonance), especially in the lines that note one child’s love for another, are euphonious, or pleasant sounding. For example, Ruefle repeats the “a” in Ann Galbraith’s name as well as the “o”...
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Topics for Further Study
• Read Ruefle’s “When Adults Talk,” which appears on the facing page in Post Meridian, and compare its treatment of the tensions between adults and children to those depicted in “Sentimental Education.” Does Ruefle raise any different points in “When Adults Talk” about the problems of communication between the two groups? Write a paper in which you compare and contrast the two poems.
• Write an additional four stanzas in the same format (one stanza focusing on what one of the children loves; the other directing a prayer) that would fit the thematic focus of “When Adults Talk.”
• Research the Tartar invasion of Asia and Europe during the Middle Ages. What details about the invasion could be related to the situation(s) in the poem? Make a presentation on your findings.
• Prepare to lead a class discussion on the obscurity of contemporary poetry. Present examples of work from other poets such as Leslie Scalapino (Zither & Autobiography), Dean Young (Skid), and Joan Aleshire (Litany of Thanks). You could also include a poem by a modernist such as Wallace Stevens (for example, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”). Organize a classroom debate about the value of poetry that is clearly not written for the common reader.
What Do I Read Next?
• Dana Gioia’s “The Litany,” which can be found in his collection Interrogations at Noon (2001), contains a series of prayers that make powerful statements of love and loss and reveal the search for a way to comprehend the nature of suffering.
• James Merrill’s “Lost in Translation” (1974), collected in his The Book of Ephraim—one of a group of three books in Merrill’s Divine Comedies (1976), is a complex study of loss and the artistic rendering of experience in its focus on the speaker’s often painful memories of his childhood.
• Ruefle’s “When Adults Talk” appears on the page facing “Sentimental Education” in Post Meridian (2000). The two poems share a similar focus: the separation between adults and children caused by problems with communication.
• Ruefle’s “Cold Pluto” (1996), from her collection by the same name, focuses on the active role of the imagination in the contemplation of experience, which is a recurring theme in her work.
• Ruefle has admitted that she was most influenced by poet Wallace Stevens, whose work shares the same focus on the power of the imagination. His “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” which can be found in The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (1990), is one such poem.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Bar-Nadav, Hadara, “Lost Knowledge,” in American Book Review, January–February 2005, p. 17.
Behrendt, Stephen C., Review of Post Meridian, in Prairie Schooner, Vol. 76, No. 13, Fall 2002, pp. 171, 176, 177.
Halliday, Mark, “The Arrogance of Poetry,” in Georgia Review, Vol. 57, No. 2, Summer 2003, pp. 220, 221.
Harris, Peter, “Difficult and Otherwise: New Work by Ruefle, Young, and Aleshire,” in Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 73, No. 4, Autumn 1997, pp. 680, 681.
Review of Post Meridian, in Publishers Weekly Vol. 247, No. 2, January 10, 2000, p. 58.
Ruefle, Mary, “Sentimental Education,” in Post Meridian, Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2000, pp. 39–40.
Flaubert, Gustave, Sentimental Education, Penguin Classics, 2004.
Ruefle borrows the title for her collection of poetry from Flaubert, who in this 1869 novel satirizes the conventions of bourgeois society.
Perkins, David, A History of Modern Poetry, Vol. 2: Modernism and After, Belknap Press, 2004.
Perkins examines the works of individual poets published up to the twenty-first century as well as important movements such as modernism, beat poetry, and confessional poetry. He notes the distinctiveness and...
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