Monthly Archives: January 2012

On Reading (In 15 Parts)

A writer only begins a book. A reader finishes it.–Samuel Johnson


A large box sat in the back of my fourth grade classroom, marked by square letters S R A and other words I never read. For most of my classmates it was a dusty and defunct dinosaur, not nearly as interesting as bookshelves of heavily illustrated paperbacks or even back copies of Highlights or Weekly Reader.

They were more to me. Inside, neatly tabbed folders held reading from warm to cool, beige to yellow to orange to red and onto brown and black, each color another rainbow rung of mastery I desired.

The year ended before I reached black, and those last weeks are my first vivid frustration. My teacher wouldn’t let me skip forward, and whatever awaited in those black folders held questions and answers I’d never know.


One of my MFA classmates once calculated how many books she could hope to read. Even at a torrid pace, the number never equaled her aspirations. If, as some people speculate, Thomas Jefferson was the last person who read everything written, then we are the first generation to have read in one lifetime less than what’s published in a month.

I sometimes imagine myself as a reading eye, vacuuming up what’s before it and absorbing words wherever they lie. More habit than will, my absorption is unplanned. The swath of clean carpet is tangled and twisted, doubling back on itself and leaving so much untouched.


The seminal photographer Andre Kertesz took a number of photographs of people reading. He captures them from afar, across rooftops and canyon streets. He froze them in funny situations where everything seems focused on the page or found them reading even in the midst of chaos. But in every picture, he conveys their strange composure. We see them as if we’ve caught them sleeping, as if, while reading, their lives have at last stilled and they are fully themselves, unaware, unposed, and unguarded.


You can find a million quotations lauding reading, but what if we only need it, what if it is a compulsion and not an ambition?


For a few years in my teens, I read The Lord of the Rings every spring. Just when the weather began to turn, I’d start again, sharing time with the fellowship as they traveled to familiar spots and encountered familiar obstacles. I knew they would get by. I also knew that some part of every day I’d spend outside myself, engrossed in a place I’d never visit and imagining heroism I could in no way equal.


Early in Next Stop Wonderland, Erin Castleton (Hope Davis) drops a book at the counter of a used book shop, and the clerk instructs her not to close it.  “You should never close a book,” he says, “until you’ve read something from it… just a sentence, or a word, it can be very, very revealing.” What she reads comes from Wordsworth:

When from our better selves we have too long

Been parted by the hurrying world, and droop,

Sick of its business, of its pleasures tired,

How gracious, how benign, is Solitude

The random reading of words and sentences becomes, from that point forward, a motif in the film, a way of dividing its action into stages or chapters. I’ve never believed in reading that way, as a sort of I Ching of throwing bones, but books may be the closest we come to artificial intelligence. The best books have an answer to every question, however oblique or mysterious that answer might be. They offer answers outside us by insinuating themselves until they are inside us, a special solitude that is not loneliness.


In “The American Scholar” (1837), Ralph Waldo Emerson labels reading as one of the three proper influences on “Man Thinking,” but, as in all other matters, he’s picky. “Undoubtedly there is a right way of reading” he says,  “Man Thinking must not be subdued by his instruments.” Emerson prefers to “Read God directly,” but when we cannot, “when the sun is hid, and the stars withdraw their shining…we hear that we may speak,” and, citing an Arab proverb, he says “A fig tree, looking on a fig tree, becometh fruitful.”

The chief pleasure in the scholar’s reading is discovering something understood in something strange. The best book, “says that which lies close to my own soul, that which I also had well nigh thought and said.”

The first time I read “The American Scholar,” I felt the odd echo of Emerson’s words—he was saying something I knew true.


Francis Bacon said, “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few are to be chewed and digested.”

Not all reading is the same.


Most English teachers come in two varieties, those who love writing and those who love reading. Both understand that one could not exist without the other, but both want to pass their primary pleasure along.

For an English teacher, I don’t read as much as I’d like. Though I must average about 50 pages a night, most of it is re-reading—preparing to teach already familiar books, hoping to see something new to exploit in the next day’s discussion or just looking for the fresh familiarity that will make class compelling.

Buried deep under my to-do list, pleasure reading is my last destination. I try to read one book a month, but I don’t devour books as most English teachers do. I take a tiny bite just before bed, a few sentences scrambled by the onset of unconsciousness.


People sometimes ask me what my first book was. I say Winnie the Pooh, though, truth is, I don’t remember.

The first book that made an impression on me was Curious George. I imagined George as real and felt his dilemmas so acutely that I’d sometimes have to close the cover and take a breath before moving on. Now, I know the man in the cowboy hat will soon arrive to solve everything, but then I believed anything could happen. Just as in life, what was next was unwritten.

I miss that.


When my father died, my sister found some sparsely filled journals describing cities he’d visited and memories he must have wanted to preserve. When I die, my children will have much more of me to read. They will be able to revive my voice whenever they wish, but will they wish?

The words writers leave have their own causes. Once expressed, few writers look back. The stories await construction from another mind.


One of my students is doubling up on English classes and will be reading The Great Gatsby twice, having read it once before. I joked she will know the book better than I do, but I’ve read it enough times to lose track.

People say a book is different each time you encounter it. You’re older and what you see in it fits your age. Suddenly Holden reminds you of your son, or you develop tolerance for Mr. Wilcox when he’d seemed such a blowhard before. Prospero becomes someone like you and Miranda pitiable. The stories mellow like anything aged.

Yet the words never move. They are dry-docked, and if they seem to have shifted from the last time you looked, it’s a current in you that makes it seem so.

Having read Gatsby so many times, I’m more fascinated by how I misquote it than how much I remember. I’m always revealing what I thought I knew, but didn’t.


For some time now, I’ve wondered if reading is doomed.

When I say so to my students, repeating the statistic that, by twenty-one, the average American has spent three times as many hours playing virtual games as reading, they grumble and grouse. How could reading die, they say, when so much of what we learn and know must come from written sources?

But they misunderstand me. I’m not talking about information but emotion. A few of them still look for humanity in books and seek vicarious experience, but more see reading like a computer application, a necessary interface, a means to pleasure, not a pleasure itself.


The best books continue without me. I put them down and imagine the characters repairing to dressing rooms for tea or taking a walk together to pass time until my return. Some characters become companions, running a parallel course like the moon on a night highway. Though they don’t truly move, they are always chasing you, and their existence relies on your noticing.

Some books, even years later, seem to riot within their covers. I only need to pick them up to imagine everyone still inside and hear their familiar voices whispering in my ear.


Two weekends ago, I reread Pride and Prejudice. I’m reading it for an independent study with an ambitious student, but I went well beyond the 100 pages I needed to complete. The narrative pulled me toward every event that appeared on the horizon, and soon the hours stretched.

More happened than real life could present. Putting the book aside felt like disembarking from a speedboat, the ground was too solid, my circumstances suddenly stagnant.

They are all along, but reading makes you notice.


Filed under Aging, Education, Essays, Experiments, Identity, life, Memory, Reading, Recollection, Teaching, Thoughts, Writing

Facing It

Be more concerned with your character than with your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.

John Wooden

Most of us think of face as an eastern idea. The clichéd understanding is that face is an inscrutable, stiff-expressioned honor unrecoverable once compromised. In movies, losing face precedes resignation and/or seppuku, ritual suicide. On that scale, few of us have ever lost face.

Of course, it’s more complicated. Stella Ting-Toomey, a leading researcher on face theories, defines it more broadly as the image one projects of oneself. Saving face is the attempt to negotiate the way others perceive us, to bring their impressions more in line with our wishes.  Doing so is much harder than it seems.

The trouble with face, especially in the US, is that you can’t give it to yourself. It is conferred, granted by a community on the basis of experience and esteem. When you are new to a place, for instance, you can have little more than institutional stature—your title and being hired to fill that title. The respect you garner by doing your job well takes time, maybe years, but all the time in world won’t replace the consent of the community. When you lose that job, you lose the community and nearly all your stature.

Ting-Toomey regards the U. S. and other pioneer cultures as “low context societies,” because they honor autonomy more than face. Individual rights are more important when a high value is placed on self-reliance and self-preservation. Individual rights supplant loyalty to a nation, institution, or even family. Low context societies believe in direct communication—saying what you want and why you want it, fighting for it—and they accept conflicts where competing desires result in one individual or group losing.

According to Ting-Toomey, in the “high context societies” of the east, inclusion has a much higher value. Group harmony is a crucial attribute and some nonverbal signaling, indirection, or pretense in communication occurs because it preserves a pleasant and agreeable atmosphere where all have a value. Put simply, institutions absorb individuals. Individuals accept knowing less about colleagues because they perceive it as essential to avoiding conflict and preserving unity. Thus, in a high context society, losing face is the ultimate insult—it is losing a place in a world designed to keep places. Without face, you have little value. Acknowledging the importance of the community encourages institutions to retain their members.

In a low-context environment, even extensive explanation leaves people free to form what conclusions they can. They have autonomy and invest absolutely nothing in believing official versions, and, though an individual might try to save face by revealing a more complete picture, face is conferred and not claimed. Placing emphasis on individual perceptions also makes people quick to judge and might lead them to regard any explanation as rationalization. When people invest in their own beliefs before and above others’, they’re unlikely to buy any attempt to save face.

In other words, you’re on your own. Americans don’t give face. Yet face is real—even in the US individuals have stature arising from institutional affirmation. You cannot be important simply by saying you are. Institutions still make us.

Ting-Toomey says that in low context societies, a personal feeling of guilt serves as a moral corrective. Face issues aren’t nearly as significant as they are in high context societies because Americans are free to apologize, be forgiven, and resume their station. In theory, society will not prevent and may even encourage redemption. We love comebacks and makeovers. In theory, you can never be entirely lost when you control your destiny.

But what if confession or apology don’t seem the proper correctives? What if you really don’t have much to apologize for? What can you do to regain face, when you can’t really insist upon it and it must be given?

Very little, which is why losing your job is so devastating… and why corporations’ delusions about employees easily finding other work is either naive or self-serving. We Americans like to believe ourselves masters of our own destinies but are instead masters of another sort of hubris, believing in the self-made man or woman when really it’s so much more complicated than that.

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My Old Self

Cleaning out a closet recently, I encountered a series of blank books I filled during the time I was studying for an MFA—notes on books perused and lectures attended, lots of elaborate doodles, poetry recommendations, and random epiphanies. It’s been long enough now that they looked like someone else’s labor, as if I’d entered a prison cell and stared at the scratchings of an altogether different mind.

I was amazed at what I’ve forgotten.

Graduate degrees ought to come with expiration dates. Some must remain relevant—maybe the ones where learning is practical and essential—but everything unused fades quickly. And the thesis sitting in your attic or the spirals of class notes from college are more mementos than records. I’m not sure why I kept mine.

Here’s something I found on page 78 on my second semester book, my notes on Pablo Neruda’s Book of Questions:

Completed only months before Neruda’s death in 1973, he revisits, “that vast well of perpetuity”: the imagination of regeneration and vision. These poems express dedication to what Hayden Carruth calls “structure of feeling” underlying experience. Neruda’s “passion lay in finding and improvising upon basic rhythms of perception to reveal unspoken and unspeakable traits.”  These poems, “integrate the wonder of a child with the experience of an adult. The adult usually grapples with the child’s ‘irrational’ question solely with the resources of the rational mind.” These questions do not produce, and aren’t intended to produce, any rational answers.

These notes must come from Hayden Carruth’s introduction, an explanation I hardly understand for a book I don’t remember. At the time, in 2000, the notes aimed to enhance a poet’s education, but “the vast well of perpetuity” swallowed them, and this rational mind wonders how, even if it understood them entirely, how it might apply what it found.

As Neruda’s book still sits on my shelf, I’m not sure why I wrote my favorite questions on the opposite page. I’ve carefully copied, “At whom does rice smile / with infinitely many teeth?” and “Where can a blind man live / who is pursued by bees?” along with “Will my sorrowful poetry / watch with my own eyes?” and two more pages.

Was the idea to write as Neruda did? I couldn’t have been so naïve… because he is Neruda and I’m not… and at the bottom of all my careful scrivening appears a rushed note to myself, “The fact is we don’t know what’s going on and why do we place such emphasis on saying we do?”

Perhaps my books of purple calligraphy would have a different meaning if they described the structure of the heart or equations to determine the weight distribution of a suspension bridge. Perhaps only an arts education is so perishable. And maybe these notes were meant for a paper I’ve forgotten, or they hoped, in examining what exactly made Neruda’s best questions, to gather something I might use in my own poetry.

But another conclusion occurs to me—maybe only aspiration matters. As foolish as hoping to remember might be, something of those notes must persist, some determination laid down like substructure, pipes, wires, and conduit. If your aims are sincere and their effect real, the result isn’t in notes but in the influence of reading and writing intently, actions designed to copy learning somewhere unconscious and untraceable.

I could be rationalizing endless hours spent scribbling—they have to count—but the “structure of feeling” they communicate must be real. Most patterns we create without noticing. They assemble themselves like currents aligned to regular movement. Like Neruda’s questions, those “basic rhythms of perception” that “reveal unspoken and unspeakable traits,” arise, at least in part, from us and what we want enough to labor for.

At the end of each of these books are a few pages I never reached. The semester ended and I picked up a new book. Those empty pages speak as vividly as some of the full ones now. I’m not sure whether I know what these notes do anymore, but they tell me I wanted to know. I don’t mind witnessing their desire anew.

Maybe I will find something for their empty pages yet.

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On Difficulty


Soon, one of my classes will wander into meta-territory, the domain where you are no longer talking about this book and begin talking about writing, reading, thinking.

Next week they will reach the twenty-second and twenty-third chapters of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. If you’ve read the book you would remember these chapters—one is stream of consciousness coming from the eponymous Beloved, a murdered two-year-old come back from the dead to occupy a young woman’s body. The next chapter was her consciousness layered with her mother’s and sister’s.

Two-year-olds make complete sense only to themselves, and seem biologically incapable of the linear, sequential thought that streams through prose. Morrison must have done something right because chapter twenty-two is particularly incomprehensible:

I cannot find my man the one whose teeth I have loved a hot thing the men without skin push them through with poles the woman is there with the face I want the face that is mine they fall into the sea which is the color of bread she has nothing in her ears if I had the teeth of the man who died on my face I would bite the circle around her neck bite it away I know she does not like it now there is room to crouch and to watch the crouching others it is the crouching that is now always now inside the woman with my face is in the sea a hot thing.

We will spend some time trying to decode this passage and others like it by examining what are clearly repetitive and important elements: faces, teeth, the sea, and, of course, “a hot thing.”

During discussion, the last item can become comic punctuation—“I think water might represent birth or transformation between life and death and back again…a hot thing.”

In such moments, I’m especially appreciative of what good sports I teach. I give them a task—make sense of a pointedly and relentlessly recondite passage—and they sum their considerable intelligence to gain a foothold. But I’m not naïve, some only pretend to like it. Midway through the period, someone will wander into meta-territory by asking why this book has to be so challenging, why authors don’t try harder to be understood.

If I turn the question back on them, they have a ready generic response—authors want us to participate in assembling meaning instead of absorbing it. Half the fun, a dutiful student will say, is solving the puzzle. Authors know: show, don’t tell.

Okay, of course that’s right, but something in me goes cold when I hear it. Maybe I’m tired and skeptical of right answers that are too easy, but a better response might be that, if consciousness is mercurial, prose should be too. As Morrison channeled her character, the diction and syntax probably formed like new track in front of her, but some students seem to see it the other way around. Morrison laid the tracks with switchbacks and impossible grades…then tried to drive it, reader-passengers be damned. Perhaps it’s both—she wanted to be true to Beloved’s elusiveness in an aesthetically sophisticated way—but I’m sure her subject came before her reader. Her aim was authenticity, not ostentation. She wasn’t trying to pander to a bunch of brains looking for something to do. She was doing her best to be Beloved.

My students accept the explanation that Morrison wanted to present Beloved as she would be—difficult to understand—but they have much more difficulty with my other answer: perhaps the trouble is our expectation of sense, not the book’s reluctance to offer it. Language isn’t all about rational communication—some shifting percentage (but always majority) of communication is non-verbal, or so I’m always told. So why can’t language have an effect that eludes rational explanation the same way music can? Why can’t Morrison’s chapters be music not intended to further the plot or offer clues to character?

Which is a tough sell because Morrison has to be after something. School teaches us to analyze and look for meaning in the text, and advertising teaches us to look for hidden agendas. In school, we expect information rather than tone or emotion. When we watch TV, advertisers send us searching for extra-textual motives in art. The author means for us to do this or that (or the other) the same way Maxwell House means to sell us coffee by telling a story of new neighbors sharing a cup.

Some people resent speakers with advanced vocabulary because they believe the speakers are showing off or want to create a particular image. The speakers, these people believe, are advertising their intelligence. The words, they believe, have an extra-textual intent. But it’s possible those speakers might use the words because they are looking for just the right words or because they enjoy the diversity and range of language or just the sound of words like “recondite.” They may have been looking for any excuse to use the word “eponymous.” Yet, for some people, those words distract instead of add. They’re pretension, not communication.

However, the more literature I read the less I believe great writers calculate their image. Pick up a New York Times Book Review, look at the ads, and it appears every book is about its attractive author, but that’s about selling the book, not about appreciating it…and certainly not about writing it. I like to believe writers are difficult or easy because it’s what their subject demands.

And, as for the photographs, it’s just a fact of life writers are good-looking.

After too many minutes talking about difficulty in fiction, my class will inch closer to understanding what “a hot thing” is and—as I’m not at all sure myself —I’ll be grateful for the diversion and for the re-education, any chance to redirect students’ attention and reclaim them from advertisers…and maybe even school itself.

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Filed under Advertising, Art, Education, Essays, High School Teaching, Modern Life, Reading, Teaching, Thoughts, Toni Morrison, Writing

Redefining an Age

Some of what we see as real is invented. Today is not really Saturday, and the hour—plus the number we give it—are conveniences. Names for the stages of life, from “toddler” to “tween” to “middle-aged” to “octogenarian,” help classify and describe groups, but they are labels, not definitions. As we’re continually reminded, you are as old as you feel.

Or so I have always struggled to believe. Recent stomach troubles have me feeling middle-aged. At 53, I expect some indignities like bruises that come more easily and stay longer or joints that stiffen with inactivity. But I’ve kept myself up. I never have trouble identifying with the youth culture foisted on me every day. Being older seldom limits what I might do.

But then my stomach began to complain if I ate spicy food or if I ate too much or if I ate something too rich or if I ate at the wrong time. My sister, a doctor, told me I would feel much better if I avoided three things: alcohol, coffee, and chocolate. Perhaps you can imagine how disconsolate I was. Suddenly I saw aging stretching out ahead of me as a long road of sacrifices where, one by one, I’d drop all my youthful pleasures.

Having made the changes my stomach made necessary, I’m surprised to discover I was wrong.

In The NY Times Book Review this week Laura Shapiro writes about In Our Prime: The Invention of Middle Age by Patricia Cohen, a reporter for the NYTimes. In her review, Shapiro discusses Cohen’s thoughts on the origin of middle age, describes one of the more colorful historical responses to aging described in the book—men seeking to replace their own testicles with monkey testicles in hopes of regaining their lost energy—and presents Cohen’s thesis, that aging has unjustly been made into a disease.

Cohen, apparently, is optimistic. She presents a middle-aged generation that is more productive, attractive, and mentally acute than ever. Cohen believes people in their 50s and 60s are, “Rewrite[ing] a cultural script that’s been more than 150 years in the making.”

Yet, I wonder what this redefinition means. I haven’t read the book, but if she is saying older people can do just what young people do, is she redefining middle age or pushing its frontier back? A new definition, it seems to me, should give middle age its own identity, and Shapiro suggests Cohen sees it as every generation has, in terms of how favorably it compares to youth. What is middle age itself? What attributes—pleasures and perks—are distinct to it?

I saw a picture of Sylvester Stallone’s abs recently and was equally awed and disgusted. Impressive, yes, but there’s something pathetic in our desperate efforts to see how long we can pretend to be young.

Caffeine has been my drug of choice for over 30 years, so long that I knew nothing about life without it. When I gave it up three weeks ago, I suffered headaches for a few days and then, for the next two weeks, felt lethargic and dull. I’m beginning to come around, however, and I like my life without it so much that I won’t return to it even when my stomach improves.  And it hasn’t hurt me to eat fewer sweets or drink less either. I want to convince myself I’ve awakened to a different sort of life, not a lesser one.

Perhaps I’m making a virtue of a necessity, but I’d like to find something to define this age that doesn’t derive from deprivation or decline. I’d like to feel the age I am, whatever that is, and transcend eagerness to escape it. Something must be good about 53, and, if I have sacrifices to make, perhaps they will lead me into new pleasures, new perspectives, new territory.

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Just Playing

In 2009, Sarah Palin quoted Plato as saying, “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” She was wrong about the author—it was Richard Lindgard, hardly as big a name—but Palin was right about the idea… though perhaps not in the way she intended. Americans seem to be playing all the time.

The opening of Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture (1938) describes ways biologists account for animal and human play: it’s training for life’s serious business, it’s an initiation by elders, it’s a release of a youth’s superabundant energy, it’s an exercise in controlling and channeling impulses. However, Huizinga rejects all of these explanations because they assume, “Play must serve something that isn’t play.” He asserts play has it’s own compulsion. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t be fun.

We can’t, in other words, not play—it’s instinctual, fundamental. At the same time, we can, Huizinga says, recognize play as less than serious. In his view play centers on experimentation only possible when actions have no consequence outside the game. It begins with pretense, he says, and all play, “Betrays a consciousness of the inferiority of play compared to seriousness.” The absorption and intensity of participants can exist within a game while remaining make-believe. Play is cathartic, rapturous without being consequential. The game ends, and we return to life.

His views seem naïve now. Even if the NFL playoffs weren’t beginning this weekend, the multiple sports networks and hour-to-hour wall-to-wall broadcast of games suggest how seriously we take sports and how central it is to American culture. Revenue from professional sports contributes significantly to the overall economy—it’s big business, we’re told over and over—and anyone who’s met someone in a weeklong snit over a ref’s botched call or watched a fallen baseball star testify in Congress or seen footage of overturned cars burning during victory celebrations knows how sports bleed into real life. Athletes are demigods, their stature in society assured by skills confined to quarters, innings, fields and courts.

Huizinga seems to have overestimated our capacity to separate play and real life. American culture elevates even the most trivial pursuit to high seriousness and treats our most grave pursuits like melodramas. We take our mock seriousness very seriously and fill airtime with tweets, verbal slips, and wardrobe malfunctions. Our political news follows politicians like soap opera actors, and we attend to their antics without knowing much about their positions or actions. The issues at stake are too complicated, so we revel in partisan disputes as we might boxing, unaware exactly what’s being disputed, aware only that it’s fun to watch. The discontented gather in parks, and we absorb them like a made-for-television circus. We struggle to distinguish the serious from the not-so and, even worse, stop struggling to make much of a distinction at all.

Of course, some people still study their daily newspapers and can differentiate the policies of every Republican presidential candidate, but they are a shrinking minority and subject to jokey ridicule from many of us. Scholars still pore over the great thoughts of authors, philosophers, religious figures, and historians, but they aren’t funny enough to hold anyone’s attention for long.

Voltaire once called God “A comic actor playing to an audience too afraid to laugh.” We’re not sure who God is anymore and are afraid not to laugh. Raise a cry about our self-absorbed and trivial culture, and someone will ask, “Why so serious?” and then return to the private amusements of their iPhone, videogame, laptop, television, and iPod.

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Prescribing Poetry

Another reprise…

deadpoetsalt.jpg Teaching poetry should be easy and is perhaps the hardest teaching I do.

I don’t blame poetry—from my perspective, what could be more alluring to students than reading assignments that are crazily creative, organically mysterious, and nearly always short? Yet anyone who has seen Dead Poets Society knows teachers are not playing on a level playing field. Few students are neutral about poetry.

If you’ve seen the movie, you probably remember the episode I’m talking about. Mr. Keating (Robin Williams) asks a student to read the introduction to a poetry anthology in which J. Evans Pritchard encourages readers to plot the technical expertise of poetry against its importance, yielding an area equal to the poem’s “greatness.” Then Keating calls the method “excrement” and encourages the class to rip the pages out of their books.

Keating’s conclusion:

We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute, we read and write poetry because we are members of the human race and the human race is filled with passion…This is a battle, a war, and the causalities could be your hearts and souls. Armies of academics going forward measuring poetry—no, we’ll not have that here! No more J. Evans Pritchard!

While this iconoclastic moment makes good cinema and though Mr. Keating’s clarion call seems to reclaim poetry from dusty libraries, his perspective actually makes my job tougher. It isn’t just the crazy notion that, if you have teens in trouble, the best solution is to prescribe poetry…though I am sick of that cliché. It’s that, by elevating poetry’s importance, Keating puts poetry on a pedestal many students love to topple. And in rejecting Pritchard—execrable as his introduction makes him seem—Keating calls into question all analysis of poetry, which makes teaching poetry blasphemy. The combination is devastating.

It’s occurred to me maybe teaching poetry is impossible, maybe we are not supposed to analyze poetry and, as my students often tell me, maybe poems mean whatever you think they mean and thus any collective attention to them is a waste of time. Maybe it’s true we “murder to dissect.” Many days, I’ve been perfectly willing to give up.

However, I’ve stuffed my files with failed lessons I return to over and over hoping this time they work. I can’t give up. Teaching poetry brings out the quixotic in me. What could be the harm in helping students read more thoughtfully and carefully? In the movie The History Boys, the teacher Hector (Richard Griffith) describes literature as reaching out of the page and taking your hand. If you can make that happen one time for each student each year, isn’t it worth the risk?

In Billy Collins’ introduction to 180, an anthology of easily accessible and clever poems, he says “High School is where poetry goes to die,” and tells the story of a student who writes in the school paper, “Whenever I read a modern poem, it’s like my brother has his foot on the back of my neck in the swimming pool.”

I understand the metaphor—many students see poetry—being lofty—as something someone is supposed to “get,” revelatory and rapturous. The clouds are supposed to drift asunder. A ray of heavenly light is supposed to illuminate, laser like, one square of significant something. Not getting that epiphany makes them feel stupid, as if they’ve missed something the rest of the world has seen.

And here’s the catch 22. Trying to help them see what they might be missing is fraught with trouble too because, well, poetry isn’t meant to be analyzed.

Where’s a teacher to stand?

Good education is serious play, a willing struggle to understand, an attempt to move a heavy object without handles from here to there. It’s another try at a seemingly inaccessible but possible goal or a ballet that might just come off perfectly this time around. Certainly, learning is important, but it should also be fun. And, unfortunately, students don’t always associate “fun” with poetry.

Collins sees poetry as fun. He starts 180 with his own poem, “Introduction to Poetry,” and employs a series of metaphors representing what he’d like students to do with poetry, namely drop a mouse into the poem-maze and watch it run, hold it up to sun like a color slide, feel along its walls for a light switch, or waterski across it waving at the author. Still, all his students want to do is

tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

To me, Collins’ poem looks like an indictment of students who have trouble balancing appreciation and analysis, who have trouble simply playing and expect more of an answer than poems can (or should) present. Yet, even exploring the metaphors of this poem sometimes sets students’ eyes rolling. For some, even asking what Collins means by the metaphors is murder enough.

So teaching poetry often becomes an exercise in un-brainwashing:

No, poetry isn’t special, except that it is a form of writing with distinctive and interesting conventions and challenges.

No, we aren’t looking for specific answers in poems as if each were a life or death riddle.

No, you aren’t stupid if the poem doesn’t resonate with you. Maybe the next one will.

No, it is possible to read a poem closely and attentively and still appreciate it (and maybe even enjoy it).

No, poetry isn’t always boring, arcane, or snooty.

No, I won’t give up or leave you alone if you play nice during this “poetry unit.”


Filed under Art, Education, Essays, High School Teaching, Laments, Poetry, Teaching, Thoughts, Work