March 22, 2015 at 2:18 am #342
When I was teaching English Literature I was asked time and again to justify the existence of poetry in the curriculum. “Why can’t he just say what he means, like a normal person?” “I don’t think it’s fair to make us solve his words like this was math class.” “Is this supposed to make sense? It’s all gummed up with backwards words and the rhymes are stupid: Nobody talks like that.” “Why do people always say poetry is like music? Duh. That’s what real songs are for.”
Poetry is our oldest literary form. It does have music attached to it, trailing along with its long tradition, because the original purpose of poetry was to anchor celebrations and parties and solemn occasions such as marriage and burial. But why do poets keep producing “songful” words and lines when we have faster, if less elegant, ways to express ourselves? Why produce words in a certain order to express ourselves lyrically? My first instinct in the face of such questions, such dubiety, was to ask, “Do you read PAPERBACK BOOKS?”
Paperback books made art democratic. Anyone could afford it, unlike, say, a Cezanne. Anyone could experience this “art”, even in a quiet room. Or a noisy one. You couldn’t drag an orchestra around with you; you couldn’t carry Rodin’s THE THINKER over your shoulder; in theory, at least, you couldn’t grab the MONA LISA off the walls of the Louvre. But a paperback book – you could take that anywhere and interact with art, culture, philosophy, the thoughts defining the day in which you live. And that is exactly what poetry does – poetry is portable, succinct, and usually pretty enough in its presentation to go well with your new outfit.
Because of traditions in poetry – rhythm, rhyme, alliteration — it’s so easy to memorize (remember the Iliad and the Odyssey, both preserved for us by lusty memorizers?) which contributes to the portable nature of poetry. Poetry can go on picnics, and roller coasters, and shopping errands, and on boring lines at bus stations and airports. We never HAVE to be alone. If we allow poetry into our backpacks, we always have access to companionship.
So why do some of us fight poetry when it seems to be so humane and convenient?
Before I go on here, I’d like to tell a story not about poetry, but about its younger cousin, the novel.
Once, when I was teaching Advanced Placement English Literature, I assigned the first page only of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE for reading homework. ONE PAGE. These were (until then) great kids, and I expected to hear the next day intelligent and diligent comments about their reading. All I got was blank faces. “What’s the matter?” I asked them. A hand went up. “Ms. Whitney,” Tanya said, “this page just didn’t do anything for me.” Orange steam started pouring out of my ears. “Do something for you? Like what? Give you a manicure? Do the laundry? Watch your television shows?”
It looked like the whole class completely understood her, not me.
“You’ve got it backward,” I said. “Good writing is not supposed to do anything for you. YOU are supposed to do something to it. “
“For tonight’s reading assignment, I want each of you to rip that first page out of your book and do something to it. It certainly won’t do anything to you.”
The kids grinned at each other and at me at the beginning of class the next day.
What a dangerous assignment! One student had rolled a credible bunch of marijuana with the first page of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. Holy Cow! And there was worse – imagine the first page of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE with a small bullet hole right through the center of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet bickering.
But a few kids blushingly raised their hands after I had tucked the suspicious pages into my briefcase. I called on a kid, a swimmer who would go on to the Olympics and medal in the backstroke. He said, “What I did was what I think what you meant us to do in the first place. I read just the first sentence, carefully. It says ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.’ What struck me was the word “universally.” I mean, look at that – nothing is universally acknowledged. Nothing. So, either the author is a liar, or stupid, or something I missed the first time around, I guess because I was tired. The author was using irony and she expected the reader to catch that. Which none of us did.”
“So,” I said, “why did the author use that word?” I asked.
“She was telling us how to read the book.”
“And how do you feel now, having figured out the entire key to the novel?”
“Um, I guess I feel like I’m qualified to read the book.”
“And what did reading that sentence do for you?”
“I think probably nothing. Except I laughed. But that’s because I did something.”
Exactly. He had learned one of the first principles of reading literature: be an active participant with the text.
That led the class to a great discussion of a reader’s role in the creative process. I told the kids there would be no homework that night.
The next day, I asked them to get out their Norton Anthologies and quietly read the first stanza of Percy Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind”:
O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,
I gave them time to read the stanza carefully, they starting looking up from their books, and I asked, “What was the poet wearing?”
I looked at the students’ faces. They looked stricken.
“Ms. Whitney,” began one young man, “I don’t think it says.”
Tanya, the young woman seated beside him, raised her hand: “I think he was wearing one of those white shirts with the ruffles and the big sleeves, and the shirt would be flapping around him because the wind was so strong. A wrinkled shirt.”
I nodded and smiled at her. “I think that’s a lovely description. Thank you. You even told us about the circumstances of the shirt, given the weather. And given the poet’s strong emotional response.”
“What makes Tanya so sure the weather was bad and the poet was all emotional,” the boy said.
“Well,” Tanya said, “the poet wouldn’t bother writing a poem if it was just a nothing breeze, and you can tell he’s emotional because he uses those scary images, like dead leaves and ghosts.”
The whole class got quiet and read the rest of the great ode. What followed was a lively debate and, when the bell rang, a sort of warmth surrounded them and accompanied them out into the hall. They were still talking about Percy Shelley’s masterpiece. I almost cried.
That was a good year for them. They considered themselves a special group. One of them, whose first “dream” college accepted him – partly on the strength of his personal essay, a scholarly analysis of seven lines from Book One of PARADISE LOST, certainly an unusual choice for a college applicant –- went on to graduate magna cum laude from The Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, one of the most selective of college destinations. He wrote his personal essay on one of the most daunting pieces of poetry written in English.
I remember their class with pride and pleasure. The last day of class, I gave each of the twelve a 14-carat gold key chain engraved with these words:
THE REST IS SILENCE
Hamlet’s last words, an emotional farewell for us who had traveled together so far.
And that was their turn to cry. Those kids really got it. They had accepted their heritage by earning it.
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