Nothing Means Nothing
Sometimes when I’m in the throes of teaching poetry to public school students, I have momentary flashes where I think I’ve finally solved the problem: What ails them. Why their eyes grow glassy and they clutch their little desks as they might the panic bar on a runaway roller coaster when I announce that poetry is our subject and that for the next hour or so, the next few days, we’ll be kicking it around. We’ll be having fun with it. At that moment, at least in their veiled eyes, I am the world’s largest square.
Things start out innocently enough. I ask them to name poets. There is general reluctance, but I gently prod, and in a few minutes the following names have been wormed out of them and committed to the blackboard: Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Frost, William Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, Shel Silverstein. Don’t get me wrong. I am grateful for this aborted list.
“What do these folks have in common?” I ask.
There’s a protracted silence. Inevitably, however, someone will volunteer, “They’re dead.”
“Right,” I chortle and then challenge them to name a living poet. None of them can. Not a one, not nowhere, not no how, and I’ve been just about everywhere – at least in North Carolina. A footnote to this: the paradigm is occasionally foiled by the precocious student who brings up Jewel, and I’m forced to grudgingly iterate, “Oh, yeah, of course. Jewel.” Luckily they are too young to remember Suzanne Somers, of Three’s Company fame, and her book of poems, Touch Me.
Why hasn’t the culture in which these students abide dished up a single extant poet they can name? “Why is that?” I ask them. They are not readers, per se, but they can name prose writers. Writers like Stephen King and J.K. Rowling. Popular writers, yes. But so what? These kids at least know what constitutes the genre of fiction. Everyone knows we live in a prose world.
None of what I’ve said so far about poetry and its readership is terribly late-breaking news. The cheekiest, most incendiary – perhaps most famous – essay to indict poetry as “[flourishing] in a vacuum” is Joseph Epstein’s “Who Killed Poetry?” which appeared in the August 1988 issue of Commentary. Epstein’s thesis boiled down to this: No one – except for poets, English professors and other para-literary hangers-on – reads poetry.
In the mid-1930s Edmund Wilson wrote something similar, but not so acerbic, an essay titled “Is Verse a Dying Technique?” which way back then, well before the boom of creative writing programs, suggested that poetry was an endangered species.
The most readable piece on the question of poetry’s salient virtues is Dana Gioia’s 1990 essay, “Can Poetry Matter?” While he is decidedly stymied by the fact that poetry “has become the specialized occupation of a relatively small and isolated group,” he is not ready to send for the mortician, nor does he employ the tragedian’s rhetorical flourish of Wilson or Epstein. Like Epstein, however, he does not view the professionalization of poetry, via university creative writing programs, as a particularly good thing. “Poets and the common reader,” says Gioia, “are not on speaking terms.”
What in the world does any of this have to do with why students can’t name a living poet? Students, at least those I’d like to discuss, feel alienated from the living art. Poetry, like a lot of things educated people still know how to enjoy, lives on the other side of the tracks from them. For the most part, it does not speak their language, and when they are allowed to visit, they must come and go through the servants’ entrance. Poetry, at every turn acknowledges their inferiority. Not just as students, but as humans. Walt Whitman long ago said that “to have great poets, there must be great audiences too.” While this still remains true, it is also true that the price of the ticket in has skyrocketed.
And by the way, who is the common reader? Is it me? You? According to Gioia: “United by intelligence and curiosity, this heterogeneous group cuts across lines of race, class, age, and occupation. Representing our cultural intelligentsia, they are the people who support the arts – who buy classical and jazz records; who attend foreign films, serious theatre, opera, symphony and dance; who read quality fiction and biographies; who listen to public radio and subscribe to the best journals. (They are also the parents who read poetry to their children and remember, once upon a time in college or high school or kindergarten, liking it themselves.)”
So, let me return you to that classroom. Those children, to whom poetry and poets are often an unimaginable luxury, are looking at me and wondering what world I’ve been living in. In other words, my job – our jobs, if you will – is not to convince the well-read, cultured skeptic of the intrinsic worth of reading and writing poetry, but rather to evangelize the nonreader and frequently the borderline literate.
As to their inability to name a living poet, I very, very briefly recapitulate to them the Wilson-Epstein-Gioia discussions. I also mention the hard economic facts of book publishing, book reviewing, the hegemony of fiction, the general decline of reading, etc. I am actually trying to make them feel better, to bestow upon them absolution for their ignorance of poetry – a sin they hadn’t known they’d committed. As is so many times the case, as I look at them gaping plaintively back at me, I realize that I have confused them all the more and, in the bargain, myself.
There are no common readers in these classrooms. Not a one, and I’m lumping myself, the so-called expert, in with them. I have a terrible confession to make. I have never seen an opera.
I try another tact. I ask who likes poetry. A few hands shoot up. I pass benediction upon them.
“Who doesn’t like it?” I interrogate.
Reluctant, limp half-mast affirmations.
“C’mon,” I coax them. “You won’t hurt my feelings.”
Slowly hands spike up from the desks.
“What don’t you like?” I ask.
Boring, makes no sense and hard to understand invariably head the list. They also complain about the dilemma of interpretation and analysis: all that What does it mean? These children are snake-bitten, boondoggled once too often by the time-honored poetry game: Guess What This Poem Means? The stymied students guess and guess.
And that toaster. The one in the poem. Why it might be the devil or the archangel Raphael or a symbol (surely it’s a symbol) of technology subverting humanity, or narcissism. One can, after all, see one’s face, albeit distorted, in its shiny chrome finish. So conditioned are these kids that in poetry nothing is itself (i.e. nothing means nothing) that it would not occur to them that that silver contraption over there on the kitchen counter top, just like the ones they have in their non-symbolic, completely literal homes, exists primarily, maybe even solely – even when it manifests itself in a poem – to toast one’s bread so warm and golden that butter will melt on it and eating it will be divine. That’s one guess they won’t hazard.
By the time I visit them, in middle and high school, they’ve about washed their hands of the entire rigmarole. They are tired of feeling unintelligent. Poetry has not worked for them; it has worked them over. Of course they don’t like it. Based on this misapprehension, this pedagogy of guesswork – that all poetry is shrouded in seven layers of enigma – they construct their own inscrutable verse. Some of them, at the more advanced levels, have read Allen Ginsberg, Charles Bukowski, and the Bible of nonlinear thought, Jim Morrison’s Lords and New Creatures. Solemnly they utter things like: “A poem can mean anything you want it to mean.” As if it were a holograph that, held at one angle, yields a portrait of Jesus; yet, held at another, Elvis.
The following is a précis of what I think occurs in the ongoing process of thwarting student appreciation, if not love, of poetry and, concomitantly, their willingness to write it.
1. Long before one ever sees poems, one hears them. I have never been before a class anywhere at any grade level, regardless of various demographics like race, class, gender, etc., where the students couldn’t recite, at least partially, “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” “Little Boy Blue,” “Humpty-Dumpty,” and many others. They know their Mother Goose. The fact that these poems are indelibly etched in their psyches, even though for years they may not have encountered the actual text, is ample proof that poetry has its lasting impact – because of its charming whimsy and rhyme. Their experience is one of pure delight, no strings attached. Infants and toddlers are not required to write papers. Literary analysis is never mentioned. Poetry has not yet been ruined for them.
2. At some point, Mother Goose and Dr. Seuss give way to more plot-driven literature that tends toward prose, not poetry: Goodnight, Moon, In the Night Kitchen, Teddy Bears’ Picnic, whatever. Unadorned delight is still the governing principle. What’s more, the seduction of narrative comes into play. And all those luscious illustrations. All this presupposes parents who read to their children. This is precisely where a lot of those fringe children are lost. In their cases, parents with the wherewithal, time, inclination, and dollars to purchase those gorgeous, overpriced books are a commodity.
3. Once children learn to read for themselves, the amount of time parents spend reading to them dwindles, and gradually falls away entirely. Left to their own tastes, most children, like adults, choose not poetry, but prose. The pull of narrative is overpowering and they have by this time been irrevocably ruined by television, a medium decidedly antithetical to poetry. Todd Gitlin points out in his book, Inside Prime Time: “Television’s images can shape childhood’s cultural landscapes more intensely than the literature of secular cultures.” Poetry finds itself exiled from the mainstream.
4. The next time children encounter poetry with any kind of sustained intensity is during high school. Years have passed and the stakes have changed dramatically. Poetry no longer exists merely to delight them. It is now something to figure out. Mary has matured into “My Last Duchess” and her little lamb has been kidnapped by William Blake. They are circled by the likes of Emily Dickinson, Robert Herrick, Lord Tennyson, John Keats (all great poets I love) and all their cloudy cohorts. The kids panic. Two things have occurred. One is that the medium of poetry is so foreign to them, the language so difficult. Absolutely nothing in their prose-permeated, TV, cyber-pop lives has prepared them for it. They become totally disoriented. The second thing, more poignant, is that students experience a precipitous fall from innocence: they have to grow up fast, on the spot. When their old childhood pal, poetry, shows up again, like the prodigal after being gone for all those years, she has transmogrified herself into a
capricious, snobby pedant – suddenly too good for them. Instead of trotting out a wacky, tongue-twisting rhyme, she goes off in iambic pentameter about a “Grecian Urn.” Not only are students expected to care; they are also supposed to write a paper about it – a paper they’ll be graded on. Students find themselves hardly enjoying poetry, but, as Billy Collins puts it in his poem, “Introduction to Poetry”: “[tying] the poem to a chair with rope / and [torturing] a confession out of it. / They begin beating it with a hose / to find out what it really means.”
5. The last phenomenon is something I call Format Anxiety. This results after years and years of the abuses already enumerated. When students encounter a poem, when they actually see its text, shape, the arrangement of stanzas, and its idiosyncratic relationship with the page’s right margin, they become traumatized. Like the phobic suddenly freezing at the bridge or tunnel, these students are so conditioned to feel unintelligent in the presence of poetry that they experience involuntary pathological recoil. Their psyches shriek, “Yikes, it’s a poem. Run for it,” and they lapse into catatonia. They won’t talk or make eye contact until the period’s over. Seeing that zig-zagging poem leering up at them, they figure this is another set-up, a rigged game of Guess What This Poem Means? And they’re not going for it. They are victims of Format Anxiety, and will require extensive therapy.
So what should we do? One of Gioia’s suggestions, with which I heartily agree, is that “Poetry teachers … should spend less time on analysis and more time on performance.” As he says, “Poetry needs to be liberated from poetry criticism.” He is also in favor of memorization. Maxine Kumin claims that the only thing that kept her from succumbing to claustrophobia during an MRI was reciting lines of poetry. She made her students, from “Princeton undergraduates” to “MIT engineers,” commit poems to memory. She assured them she was “doing them a favor: … providing them with an inner library to draw on when they [were] taken political prisoner.”
Another obvious stroke to resuscitate poetry among those most likely to shun it is to teach and listen to, as poems, the music lyrics students are habitually wired to. For students, for kids, music – with apologies to Ezra Pound – is “news that stays news.” As Stanley Kunitz points out in “The Wisdom of the Body,” “The words of a poem go back to the beginnings of the human adventure when the first symbols were not spoken but sung or chanted or danced.” Teachers are wise to haul in song lyrics that students already know and admit them to that day’s canon. Emily Dickinson said: “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that it is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”
More to the point, as a teenager, long before I would have ever acknowledged that poetry played any part in my life, I shivered and lost my head every day over poetry: Simon and Garfunkel, The Beatles, Joni Mitchell, The Temptations, the Stones. The list is endless. Over whose lyrics did Miss Emily’s injunction come to roost on you? Were you ever in transports over a song? Are you ever now? Our students have already been evangelized by words. Maybe not our words. Maybe not the right words. But who’s to say that it’s not poetry? No fire can ever warm them.
Warm birthday greetings go out to Jeffrey Beam on this day. Here’s his poem, “Mockingbird” – originally published in The Fountain (North Carolina Wesleyan College Press, 1992) – to celebrate the occasion:
Not that he intends
to be seen
No not that
from the lonely cliff of his heart
an untame song becomes
a generous valve
within the cherry branches
Whether the chipmunk
from her rocky grove
with bucket and sweet greed
the red globes
It doesn’t matter
The song itself
Jeffery Beam is the author of over 20 works of poetry and criticism. He retired in late 2011 from many decades as botanical librarian UNC-Chapel Hill. He lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina with his partner of 35 years, Stanley Finch
Happy Birthday greetings also go to Maya Angelou. Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University, she is the author of the internationally acclaimed I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
Here is her poem, “Caged Bird.”
And, finally, a big Happy Birthday to Ralph Earle. The following poem was originally published in What Matters (Jacar Press 2013).
When the Sun Reinvents Itself
My story was different from yours:
she withdrew to a nest feathered
with unread magazines, mail
cemented together by spilled tea.
I launched a personal conspiracy
to believe she was well, as if
constrained by a mask of myself,
as if the grace of our children
growing were not enough, or the safe
haven of our house in the forest.
We are not alone. It has been this way
for a long interlude of husbands,
a continent of fathers. There is no word
for the way that water clings to leaves
when the sun reinvents itself
out of the broken storm.
Ralph Earle is an Information Architect at IBM in Durham, and teaches poetry at Central Carolina Community College in Pittsboro. His poems have recently been published in Tar River Poetry, The Sun, and Cairn.