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This article is taken from PN Review 256, Volume 47 Number 2, November - December 2020.

Redressers Dressed Down Ricardo Nirenberg
I have never taught poetry and would have no idea how to go about it. I remember reading J. M. Coetzee’s novel Disgrace almost twenty years ago and blessing my luck for having made me a teacher of math instead. It seemed patent to me that David Lurie, Coetzee’s central character, had brought disgrace upon himself mainly out of frustrations of a pedagogical rather than of a sexual nature. This fifty-year old professor of Romantic Poetry who, for as long as he could remember, carried the harmonies of Wordsworth’s The Prelude in his heart, asked his student Melanie Isaacs what she thought of the great poet, and the girl could only say:

‘Maybe by the end of the course I’ll appreciate him more. Maybe he’ll grow on me.’ ‘Maybe,’ said Lurie, ‘but in my experience poetry speaks to you either at first sight or not at all. A flash of revelation and a flash of response. Like lightning. Like falling in love.’

Then he invited the girl for a drink, and disaster ensued. How can you teach something that speaks to you either at first sight or not at all? Would you tell the class: for next week, read such and such a poem, and see if you get a buzz out of it? How different math: here, whatever you touch upon and no matter the student’s first reaction, a good teacher can lead on to subtler points or more surprising consequences, so that a student can fall in love with a theory or a theorem not at ...

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