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Why Teachers Can't Read Poetry
© 2001 John Kilgore

First, a disclaimer. I think the world of high school teachers. They have one of the world's hardest, most essential jobs, and for the most part they perform it with dedication and grace. My hat is off to high school teachers. I need to say so at the outset, since in what follows I will be sharply critical of them.

And now to business. For the past decade and a half, teaching in either of two college courses, I have often had the chance to hear what students think of a particular poem, Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken," after reading it in high school. Quite likely you know the poem, with its bleak little parable, as famous as any lyric in American literature. A traveler confronting a fork in his path compares the two branches, thinks one may be more unspoiled, sees it really isn't, chooses it anyway because he must choose. A moment later the poem rises to its famous peroration: "Two roads diverged in a wood / And I–I took the one less traveled by / And that has made all the difference."

Leaving aside the oral culture and a few chestnuts like "A Visit from Saint Nicholas" and "Casey at the Bat," these may be the best-known lines in all of American literature. Football coaches trot them out at halftime when they are down a field goal. Cab drivers and massage therapists can quote them from memory. Fortune 500 CEOs can't, but when they hear them usually recall that the author is the same guy who wrote Frosty the Snowman.

Students, too, find the terrain familiar. Often dispirited enough elsewhere in my poetry unit, they perk up noticeably when we come to this poem. Several hands dart into the air. They have tangled with this specimen once before, back in Senior English, where with the help of a caring and enthusiastic teacher (Good old Mr. Buttons, God bless him!), they got the best of it once and for all. Now several of them want to be first to say what it means.

Of course, I have to disappoint them. You might even say I victimize them. Lit class isn't always pretty, and after all it is they who are crowding forward, greedy for praise, little suspecting what grief lies in store. Pity. I let them run on a bit, and invariably it emerges that Frost, they think, is preaching a tidy little sermon on individualism, urging the reader to leave behind the unthinking herd and launch forth boldly on "the road less traveled," sort of like Captain Kirk in Star Trek or Frank Sinatra in My Way, a sixties hit that a surprising number of students actually know. Some of my straw men eventually confide that their high school teachers "related the poem to peer pressure"–in those lonely woods!–with Frost's traveler as the heroic paradigm of resistance. Some suggest that the poet may be talking, in a secondary sense, of his own choice to quit the insurance business and make a fortune writing poems for high school English classes, an unconventional career path if ever there was one, but in his case clearly successful, since after all we're reading the poem.

Finally I pounce. Yes, I say, in my kindest voice (kindness is really so much crueler in such cases), that is a widely current misreading of the poem; I have no idea how the misconception came to be so current (I feign ignorance); but it unquestionably IS a misconception, not just debatable, not just a little awry, but flat-out, demonstrably wrong, one hundred eighty degrees from the truth. You can see them recoiling from the horrid bluntness of it. Misreading! Truth! Do such terms even belong in a discussion of poetry? They have never thought so.

But while I have them off balance I plunge back into the text, to take the close look Mr. Buttons never ventured. A thankless task, like spanking a puppy, but it has to be done. Why, I want to know, if the poet is celebrating the choice of a little-used road over a much-used one, does he so carefully establish, then reiterate (lines 9-12), that the two paths are perfectly equal? If he has decisively rejected the first path, why does he promise himself to come back some day (13)? Why does he then confess with clear regret that he probably won't keep the promise (14-15), and does such waffling really befit a spiritual ancestor of Kirk and Sinatra? If the last lines constitute a ringing declaration of achieved selfhood, why doesn't the poet declare them now, in a fully confident present tense, rather than displacing them into an uncertain future "Somewhere ages and ages hence" where he will speak them "with a sigh"? Why is it that we hear that sigh, so cunningly wreathed through the vowels of those lines, and indeed through the whole last stanza, if the poet is celebrating anything at all? How do we read the dash of "and I– / I took,"–as a wistful catch in the voice, or as a calculated double emphasis on "I"–and if the latter, isn't the sound of the line (like Sinatra's song, indeed) absurdly egotistical? Why is the supposedly triumphal last line, especially the last word, so flat, quiet, noncommital, and colorless? And why call the poem "The Road Not Taken" if it is really the road taken that matters?

After a few minutes of this, I am usually able to conquer the class's enthusiasm, restoring them to their more customary state in the presence of Poetry: confusion, discomfort, self-doubt. Shame on me, you think, and why do I do it?

I do it because for some of them–not all–something worthwhile will emerge from the fog. They will come to like this poem–this poem itself, not a mirage they have substituted for it–better and more wisely than before. With luck, if I have challenged rather than traumatized them, they will then turn to other poems with renewed energy and attention, expecting something better and stranger than reprocessed cliches, ready to read closely in order to find it. Finally, since so many of my students are future teachers themselves, I hope my mean little demonstration will function as a cautionary tale, illustrating the dangers of knee-jerk didacticism and hasty conclusions, epitomizing the all-too-common fate of great poetry in the hands of feckless advocates.

Frost, of course, is not celebrating anything–not his own dark and difficult life, not a flimsy, Marlboro-man vision of heroic selfhood–nor is he re-casting the Biblical injunction to shun the broad and beaten way in favor of the virtuous straight and narrow. He is lamenting life's choices and the relentless one-way march of time, in a wistful, quiet, lonely little poem whose speaker has no idea whether he took the right path or not, does not brag, offers no advice, hints that life is rather unfair, and seems on the whole more oppressed and puzzled than anyone. Unquestionably, many high-schoolers are ready to meet this poem on its own terms. The language is not at all difficult, and they are just at the right age for the message. It is the teachers who cannot understand. For them, it seems, the need for something more upbeat, something simple and familiar and safe, is so overmastering that it blinds them to the plain sense of the middle part of the poem (two paths, both the same; got it?) and deafens them to the unmistakable tone (anxiety, wistful yearning) of the end. In particular they fail to note that the famous phrase "the one less traveled by" is used ironically, and this, it has to be said, is as clear-cut an instance of basic misreading as one could ask for. We are not dealing here with delicate shades of interpretation and personal conviction. If you speak ironically and I take you literally, if the power goes off for the third time this week and you say "Oh, that's great" and I think you really mean it, I am wrong, period, and even more in the dark than everybody else.

So what does it say about our profession that we blunder so abjectly with one of the poems we teach most and like best? What does it tell us about the situation of poetry in the English classroom?

Above all it tells us that poetry–good poetry, I mean–is threatening. Students and teachers alike are made uneasy by its complexity of form, and still more by its complexity of outlook. On the first score it is hard to blame anyone. English poetry reports in from every point of the compass and from eight different centuries, and it is simply to be expected that any given reader will have trouble making basic sense of much of it. Johnny performs dismally as a reader of sonnets, but how would Shakespeare fare with a rap CD or a Nintendo game? The good news about difficulty of this order–archaic language and special conventions and so forth–is that it yields to honest effort. Given time, patience, common sense, a dictionary, and a reasonably well-educated teacher, what was unclear grows clear. Much the same can be said for the special difficulties of compressed and highly metaphorical speech, in poetry of one's own place and time. You discuss it, you practice, you get the hang of it; and the experience can be, for some students anyway, as stimulating and rewarding as any they have had in the classroom.

The trouble, though, is that much of the world seems convinced such work ought not to be done. Students regularly assure me that it is a mistake to "tear apart" a poem, and it seems that much of the pedagogical literature echoes the claim, even tends to blame students' oft-reported aversion to poetry on the excessive analytical zeal of teachers, a claim closely analogous to believing that aspirin causes flu. The idea apparently is that poetry should yield up its full cargo of meaning and beauty by magic, without effort on the student's part, on a first reading. In my experience there is indeed one kind of poetry that does this. Bad poetry. For the rest, good poetry is almost by definition what rewards further reading, further reflection, and further close examination. A failure to tell students this, unequivocally, strikes me as a gross dereliction of duty, the more so as the skills developed in the close reading of poetry are so broadly useful elsewhere in education and in life. Analysis can be done well or badly, excessively or insufficiently, and on any given day, I suppose, the just-go-with-it approach may be tactically justified; but a categorical commitment to it is nonsense.

Of course poets themselves are often the first to raise the banner against analysis, crying with Wordsworth, "Our meddling intellect / Misshapes the beauteous forms of things / We murder to dissect." But would Wordsworth really object to a teacher's giving his poem the little push it might need to go over with a group of high school students–by, let's say, supplying the definition of the word "meddling" in the first line quoted? Surely not. What he might well object to would be having his poem amplified, parsed, glossed, and deconstructed long past the point where it had come into focus and achieved its desired effect. Part of the trouble with our broad-brush injunctions against "dissecting" poetry is that they take in too much, from the most innocently helpful preliminary glosses to crazed pedantic overkill, from arguments well and fairly made to groundless dogmatic pronouncements. Everyone agrees that the teacher who goes on and on long after her students' eyes have glazed over, or who insists on his reading without allowing reasonable latitude for interpretive difference, is a problem. But the very "resistance" that analysis encounters can be a sign, as in psychotherapy, of its efficacy. Our rule should never be "Don't do it," but "Do it well."

In any case the real scandal, the difficulty that will not go away, concerns content more than form. Good poetry–a category that includes Mother Goose every bit as much as Wallace Stevens–regards life with fierce intelligence and uncompromising candor, so it is never far from offending someone. It tends to be particularly hard on those who have not learned the trick of temporarily putting aside personal concerns to consider the world from other and broader perspectives. Nursery rhymes make wicked, delightful fun of the grownups, so to read them as a grownup is to be offended. The same goes for reading pacifist poems as a patriot, patriotic poems as a pacifist, Carpe Diem poems as the parent of a nubile teen-ager, Kipling as a black or Indian, Amiri Baraka as a white. Petrarch and Theodore Roethke invite the ire of feminists, Denise Levertov and Sappho of heterosexual white males. Coleridge and Allen Ginsberg take an indulgent view of drug abuse, Pound and Eliot of fascism, Pablo Neruda of communism.

But what is a high school teacher to make of all this playfulness and heterodoxy, this devil's advocacy and dead-earnest rebellion? The job does not foster a love of ambiguity. Pressures from every direction–the students, the parents, the principal, the board–keep the teacher searching for simple answers and positions readily justified. Over time, these pressures try to freeze him into a sort of zombie optimism that finds uplifting lessons everywhere, like the Duchess in Alice in Wonderland, or else a tut-tutting dyspepsia that sees the world perpetually going to pot. (If I wax eloquent, it is because college teaching is not really so different.) Either way, poetry, with its habit of complicating everything and confounding knee-jerk responses, tends to grow unwelcome. What is needed is a position paper, an alibi, a story one can stick to–not "all this fiddle," as Marianne Moore called it. In the end the teacher may no longer even hear the fiddle music.

What happens then is that the unit on poetry becomes really a struggle to neutralize poetry. The game begins with a careful choice of texts, and sometimes, indeed, that is the only move necessary. The idea of the classic has always been suspect to the populist, and for the last several decades it has come under fire from highbrow academic critics as well. Add the influence of an anti-authoritarian pedagogy, the apathy of the larger culture, the generally embattled state of public education, and you have a situation where the teacher can bring to class any junk she pleases, so long as it contains nothing that anyone's lawyer can call offensive. Quality is the one cause that has no constituency. Everyone will be happy to hear the teacher is teaching the class "to appreciate poetry," and no one will ask a question that ought to be all-important: which poetry?

It makes a difference. Rod McKuen is not a meaningful stepping-stone to Keats or Robert Lowell. "The Old Arm Chair" is not Lycidas. The fustian strains of "Invictus" do not wear as well over a lifetime (I'm old enough, I know) as the more considered measures of "Dover Beach" or (let's say) Dickinson's "Apparently with no surprise" or Lear's musings on the heath. My point is not that anyone can say for everyone what is good and what is not, or that we all ought to embrace exactly the same few classics–but that the effort to distinguish the false from the true, the good from the bad, if only for oneself, is all-important. Watch how students behave toward the two art forms with which they are most genuinely and spontaneously engaged–music and film–and you will notice that the critical impulse, too, is entirely spontaneous. They love one song, they hate another, they give reasons, they argue. Entirely without our encouragement, they "tear it apart." But in literature class we sometimes seem to think that any poem will do. We bring in Edgar A. Guest and, when the student makes a face, think that she has refused the rich tradition of Donne, Yeats, and Langston Hughes. In truth an instinctive revulsion from Guest, or from any poem ever reprinted in Dear Abby–just trust me on this one–is an infallible predictor of eventual love for Byron, Yeats, and Anne Sexton.

A discovery one makes periodically as a college teacher is that the rare student who declares himself a poetry-lover can be more of a problem than the professed poetry-hater. Both declarations suggest the student has hardly an inkling of the vast range of different things that can be meant by the single term "poetry"; but the poetry-hater at least knows she doesn't know. The poetry-lover, on the other hand, has too often developed an untoward passion for Robert Service, say, or Kahlil Gibran, or collections with titles like One Hundred Great Patriotic Poems and Sunset Memories; and now he wants his one-trick ponies to be the standard by which all else is measured. In times like these, when the very notion of good taste excites resentment and ridicule, it is hard for a teacher to help such sufferers. One of the best teachers I ever had, though, set before his ninth grade class this simple assignment: tell me in three hundred words whether Joyce Kilmer's "Trees" is a good poem or not, and support your answer.

It is hard to explain the magic of that particular assignment, which I suspect would be denounced by current authorities. But I was thrilled to discover that the teacher found the poem as awful as I did, and for the same reasons: the phony sentiment, the singsong rhyme, the silly mixed metaphors. Thrilled and intrigued, stimulated, energized. To reject this poem for its preening prissiness implied that not all poems were like that, something I had not really suspected till then. The real message of that assignment, though, was that you didn't have to agree with the instructor, or with anyone: you were supposed to listen, really listen, and make up your own mind. The young are always aware of adults talking mainly to hear themselves, asserting ownership of the available oxygen, not especially trying to communicate. Till then I suppose I had assumed that poems were the same kind of thing: little bits of verbal wallpaper, formulas to be mumbled over in a state of absent-minded submission, but nothing to be taken seriously. That poets could actually be trying to say something, to do it exactly and concisely and in dead earnest, was an electrifying notion.

In truth there is always enough bad poetry–in any age, in any country, in any genre or oeuvre–that no one ever has to read any other kind. It is quite possible to fill up a poetry unit with third-rate poems even while sticking to first-rate writers. Consider what happens to Whitman. By common assent the great voice of nineteenth century American poetry, Whitman dares to celebrate idleness, agnosticism, sensualism, and homosexuality, all during the heyday of Victorian propriety. How do we present him to high school students? As the author of "Captain, My Captain!" It is one of his weakest poems, as he himself freely admitted, written in haste immediately after Lincoln's assassination–but a thoroughly safe one, patriotic, sentimental, obvious, for once perfectly in step with the masses.

Or take Poe. The beauty of Poe is that he gives the class plenty of routine work to do–looking up big words, untangling overwrought syntax, counting out the drumbeat of heavy meter and clanging rhyme–while offering a meaning so negligible that no one can be offended. So no one feels left out, and everyone goes home with the self-satisfaction that comes from having processed an author whose name is a household word. The great thing about studying rotten poetry is that no one ever complains: not the principal, not the parents, not the students. You can do "The Man Who Thinks He Can" year in and year out and hear nothing but praise, even get the occasional letter from a former student who still has it taped to his shaving mirror, right next to the Amway Pledge. But just try "To His Coy Mistress" or Sunday Morning or anything by Sylvia Plath and see what happens.

In the end, though, excellent poems have a way of getting into the classroom in spite of everything. When this happens, the last line of defense is to make them tame and platitudinous, using our teacherly arts to remove their claws and fangs. Very clearly, this is what happens with great consistency to "The Road Not Taken," where ideological injunctions against reading what is really there seem to pay off in spades. Ignore everything but the first two lines and the last three, and "The Road Not Taken" really does start sounding like the anti-drug lecture the principal and the parents want it to be. No doubt such outright subversion is rare; but something of the same tendency can creep into far more responsible ventures in appreciation and theme-finding. Suppress the note of cracked ecstasy in Dickinson, and she starts sounding like a Sunday School guest lecturer. Understate the gnawing grief in Wordsworth or the randy voyeurism in Whitman, and either one becomes a mere nature-worshipper, sublimated and sanitized, amenable to the moralism of a Queen Victoria or a William Bennett. Elide the sadism and mad cunning of Lewis Carroll and he becomes a writer of the most delightful nonsense, welcome in any drawing-room.

Of course good poetry does not merely shock and offend; it uplifts, ennobles, and renews. But the trouble is that the public, school boards, principals, and finally everyone else perpetually try to get the one without the other. This is cheating, and it invariably produces not uplift, but pretense and languid prettiness. We teachers need to do a better job of insisting that poetry's power to shock and offend, or at the least to puzzle, tax, and perplex, is integral to its healing role. You can't deny the surgeon her scalpel. Like the jesters at ancient courts, poetry–and all literature, really–should have a sacred license to speak its mind without fear of consequences. But how far our current complaint-based, sensitivity-driven culture seems to be from granting any such privilege!

From what I can gather, the prevailing approach to poetry at most levels of school, and on into college, is student-centered, non-threatening, tolerant, egalitarian, non-judgmental. How well is it working? From my own experience I note that students do not read poetry, do not quote it, do not recognize famous lines or the names of poets, do not understand basic terms like "metaphor," "irony," "meter," and "alliteration." They have great difficulty figuring out even fairly simple passages and sometimes believe that a poem can mean whatever you wish. All this has been allowed to happen in the name of "appreciation," but about half of them will tell you, just before they go off to listen to rock lyrics they have long since memorized, that they hate poetry.

What I would propose, as at least a possibility worth investigating, is that the thing they really hate is what we do to poetry: how we falsify and condescend to it, how we shrink from its rigor, duck its moral challenges, hide from its intelligence. They despise the way we substitute tame toothless pseudo-poems for the real thing, or turn real poems into pseudo-poems with our half-baked readings. If I am right, it follows that the time is ripe to launch a comprehensive counter-pedagogy, one that is authoritarian, teacher-centered, intimidating, madly analytical, abrasive, sneering, elitist and belletristic: all the qualities I have been trying to model here. I see no reason to wait for the research. Whatever we try, we can do no worse.

reprinted from PUBLICATIONS OF THE ILLINOIS PHILOLOGICAL ASSOCATION, SPRING 2000, http://www.eiu.edu/~ipaweb/pipa/volume3/kilgore.htm

John Kilgore teaches literature and creative writing at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. He has published work in THE NEBRASKA REVIEW, MCCALL'S, NEBULA, SPACE AND TIME, THE RIVER KING POETRY SUPPLEMENT, and the inaugural issue of TheScreamOnline. He won Illinois Artists Fellowships in 1987 and again in 1998, and published a fiction chapbook, IMPROBABILITIES, in 1991. John is currently seeking a publisher for his novel RADIO ROGER, a fantasy epic set in a universe where apocalypse has become a bad habit. He can be reached at cfjdk[AT]eiu.edu (replace [AT] with @).

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