Why do we have to read this? Tapestries of AfterthoughtBy Todd R. Nelson
“That was the stupidest poem ever.”
Imogene, my ninth grade English student, was critiquing my favorite poem : “Year’s End” by Richard Wilbur. The class discussion had been a success, I thought. Everyone liked the poem, I thought. Such moments in teaching give me second thoughts about law school; or, I could have gone into plastics.
I actually enjoy answering the question “why do we have to read this poem?” But with more and more frequency the question has become “Why do we have to read poetry?” This was Imogene’s lament and it made me feel like a defender of the faith—the English teacher standing solitary against the forces of darkness, chaos and the infidel: MTV. The resonant literary image, the ordered experience and cadence of the sentence, the counterpoint of the paragraph, the music of the Muse needs preservation, though we may be bloodied in the attempt!
My less defensive self-image is the English teacher as carnival barker. To teach a poem one must entice the wary or jaded 9th grader into the tent of poetry: “Pssst! Hey kid! Wanna see ‘The Greatest Poem Ever Written! Hurry, Hurry, Hurry!’ Or one must summon expert witnesses, like a trial lawyer defending “the stupidest poem ever”—“Poetry takes life by the throat’ (Robert Frost) , ‘Poetry is the synthesis of Hyacinths and biscuits’ (Carl Sandburg), “poetry is the bill and coo of sex” (Elbert Hubbard).
The pernicious freshmen question persists: “Why do we have to read this?”
“Because it’s good for you” isn’t a workable answer. “Because it’s on the test” is as pernicious an answer as the question. “Because it’s soul food” is getting closer to the mark.
But poems rescue themselves. “Year’s End” itself counters Imogene’s indifference and confirms my faith in the urgency of teaching poems in the face of the 30 second attention span and the abhorrent “sound bite.”
A freshman English student is ready to realize that a mere word contains truth and beauty. Eric Sevareid said, poetically, “One good word is worth a thousand pictures.” Or, as one of my students might put it, “This word has deep inner meanings.”
I owed Imogene a response. In fact the whole class was waiting. Would Imogene get them off the hook?
I thought back to Mr. Frank, my 11th grade English teacher, who assigned “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock’ in his Great Western Literature course. Eliot’s poem was beautiful, it sounded lovely, but what was its deep inner meaning? My first experience with J. Alfred comes to mind when a poem I’ve selected intimidates a class of 9th graders. “Why are those women coming and going,” I remember agonizing? What does Michelangelo have to do with it? But the words beckoned me into the tent of poetry—“let us go then, you and I.” Here were words worth a thousand pictures.
I later wrote an undergraduate thesis on Eliot’s Four Quartets and have often returned to the poems from high school during my own “laundromat experiences.” A poem now seems absolutely utilitarian, as useful as an emergency flare in the car’s glove compartment. Poems belong in the tool box, under the sink with the plunger and in the bedside drawer.
Take note , Imogene, and spit out your gum!
“Didn’t you at least admire that gripping couplet in the last stanza?” We had decided that two lines in “Year’s End” had a particularly haunting appeal.
We fray into the future, rarely wrought
Save in the tapestries of afterthought.
Such taut beauty is central to the power in poems—and to the logic of insisting that freshmen read them. Perhaps the power is in the irony of Wilbur’s imagery: advancing into the future is an unraveling, a fraying of the fabric of past and present; or it is a ragged skirmish between what has been and what will be.
The lens of afterthought focuses us on what we truly are, as when remembering a past teacher’s inspiration, years later, and understanding it for the first time, seeing in it the wisdom entrusted to us for discovery at some later date—a rendez-vous with Prufrock or Wilbur in the laundromat.
Some day the poems from Freshman English class may be sustenance. “The poem will be on the test next week,” the English teacher might say. However, the background is “The poem is on the test you take when you marry, choose a job, have a child, teach.”
So we teachers answer the Imogenes in our classrooms with a leap of faith that the wisdom we’ve shared blossoms in afterthought. Thank you for asking the question. The answer may seem enigmatic: Imogene, past, present and future, you’re being entrusted with the Greatest Poem Ever Written. Someday when you need it you’re going to love it! Then you will finally step into the tent of poetry.
First published in The Christian Science Monitor
Todd R. Nelson is Head of School at The School in Rose Valley, Pennsylvania.