Thursday, January 13, 2011

"Kubla Khan" Regret

In preparing to teach Samuel Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” (1816) this week, it struck me—as it has when I’ve read this poem in the past—just how sexist this “classic” really is. Womanhood is nothing more than a metaphor in this carefully wrought little poem. Its “woman wailing for her demon-lover” represents the unknown, the beautiful, the terrifying, the emotional, the bodily, the creative, the generative. And ready access to all of this is the speaker’s rightful pursuit. In this way, of course, the wailing woman’s own expression of feeling is usurped as property of the (male) poet. Similarly, the “Abyssinian maid” with a dulcimer is portrayed as a muse in the poem, her own art existing only to stimulate the poet’s creative process. The sexism here is powerful in that it resonates with centuries of literary tradition. Women are so often in canonized literature portrayed as excessively sensual and emotional, symbolic of sublime creativity and/or serving as muses for male writers who imagine themselves strictly cerebral beings.

I used this poem in my “Reading and Writing about Literature” course today to begin to teach close reading. I hoped to facilitate my students’ discussion of the poem’s formal elements and eventual articulation of its possible meanings. This was quite an ambitious goal for a single class period, given the complexity of “Kubla Khan,” but my students (a really smart bunch!) were up for the challenge. By the close of the period, we had teased out several possible interpretations, and I ended feeling like we had really done the poem justice. But now, reflecting again on my initial reading of the poem, I am wondering if we did the women in the poem justice.

Certainly, we talked about both of the women figured in the poem. But we stayed mostly on the level of symbolism. In other words, we read these women just as the speaker in the poem does, in service to the male poet’s creative process. I don’t want to turn every class period into a feminist rally, but I do wish that we had been a little bit more “meta” about our reading of the women in Coleridge’s poem. We could have at least acknowledged our treatment of these figures as mere symbols and noted the problematic implications of this type of reading.

Looking back on our discussion of the poem, I realize that one student gave me a perfect opening to incorporate a feminist angle into our conversation. He said that it almost seemed as if the wailing woman was causing the chaos that overtakes Kubla Khan’s “pleasure dome.” For whatever reason—and maybe it was because he went on to right away make an additional point—we moved quickly to a different topic. I remember thinking that I wanted to go back to what he had said and ask students to think more about why Coleridge might have chosen to figure this woman in particular as either impetus for or characteristic of the terrible and yet awesome energy that erupts into the paradise portrayed in the poem’s opening lines. Much as I wish that I had, I just never returned to that point.