American Council of Learned Societies
Occasional Paper No. 29
Poetry In and Out
of the Classroom:
Essays from the ACLS Elementary and
Secondary Schools Teacher Curriculum
A Matter of Trust
I have always been a voracious reader, thinking of it as my vocation and avocation, my business and my pleasure. Ever since the days when I realized that the baseball books of John R. Tunis were not really great literature, I have known how to read, looking for subtlety in narration, grace in the use of language, complexity of character. Even so, the ACLS seminar was a revelation for me because of its profound effect on the way I read.
When Helen Vendler came as a guest speaker to our seminar, her presentation of poetry was a turning point for me. Vendler, the George F. Kennan Professor of Poetry at Harvard, led a discussion of the authority and ambiguity of the narrative voice in poems. The ramifications of that discussion stayed with me long after her visit.
First of all, I was taken with her method. A week before her visit, we had received a packet of seemingly disparate poetry from her, poems that had the language of English in common but seemingly little else. They were from all eras, by both men and women. Some used traditional forms and some depended on the shape for meaning. During the week, I read them carefully, and made notes in the margins.
When Vendler arrived at the seminar, she started talking about the poetry even as she was removing her coat, breathless from a climb up the stairs. She read the poems in their turn, or rather recited them from memory as we read along, stopped for comments and discussion, listened intently to our comments, responded. At one point someone asked about pedagogy when dealing with poetry. The questioner said that students sometimes approached poetry with trepidation at best, fear and loathing at worst. Vendlers answer was a good one, I think. Every poem in English was written under the rules of English and it was meant to communicate and if the poet were skillful, that meaning would come clear. Often we exacerbate the sense of distance and difficulty in poetry by approaching it as if it were somehow up there, mysterious and sacred, while teachers act as keepers of the flame. Vendler told us that she reveals everything she can about a poem to her students, without making them guess at what shes thinking: the poems diction and grammar, its context both historical and biographical, possible themes. She reads the poem aloud the first time they encounter it and asks that they read along silently. In telling all, she gives the students the power they need in dealing with a particular poem. ultimately, that doesnt change the fact that poems can still be full of ambiguities and confusion for students but part of our role as teachers is to help students cut through to what is important about the poem.
During the course of the seminar that day, we worked together on several difficult poems using this method. The discussion was powerful and thought-provoking, often centering on reasons why a poet had used a particular voice or why he or she had chosen a certain form or one word rather than another. It always came back to what the poets were trying to communicate and the reasons why we thought they chose to do so. Occasionally, poems that had seemed innocuous on first reading or even on my close reading during the week took on a new meaning that day, becoming instruments of power.
One poem in particular stayed with me and helped me clarify my thoughts about narration as I read and worked in the seminar, as I thought about my project and the nature of history as narrative, as I worked on literature with my students, and as I thought about my own writing. Somehow, Vendler had cast a small pebble on the water and the ripples moved gently through everything in my work during the year. The poem was Robert Lowells Fathers Room. When I read it on my own, I had thought of it as a slice of time, a poem of place, something quaint and evocative about the life of his father and little else. Vendlers wonderful explication made me think of some other questions, questions that had been common enough for me to ask my students regarding fiction but which might not have seemed appropriate in examining a poem that was putatively true. Who is telling this? Why? Where? What reasons might he or she have for leaving something out? For including some specific detail? Why that detail and not some other?
In my Fathers bedroom:
blue threads as thin
as pen-writing on the bedspread,
blue dots on the curtains,
a blue kimono,
Chinese sandals with blue plush straps.
The broad-planked floor
had a sandpapered neatness.
The clear glass bed-lamp
with a white doily shade
was still raised a few
inches by resting on volume two
of Lafcadio Hearns
Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan.
Its warped olive cover
was punished like a rhinoceros hide.
In the fly leaf: Robbie from Mother.
Years later in the same hand:
This book has had hard usage
on the Yangtze River, China.
It was left under an open
porthole in a storm.
Perhaps the most important question I had to ask myself was the question of belief in a narrator. The answer has something to do with my sense of myself as one of the two subjective players in a dynamic interaction between the writer and the reader. In other words, I had to trust myself as a reader, perhaps a quirky one, but as a reader who values his own opinion based on his own experience, both in reading and in life. Using Lowell as an example, I found that I absolutely trusted the poor sick person who narrates Skunk Hour, because somehow he slices close to the bone truth. Similarly, Lowell tells us something fundamental about the American character in Mr. Edwards and the Spider and After the Surprising Conversions, as he does in For the Union Dead. I believe those voices, but not the narrator of an elegiac poem such as Fathers Room. I wont try to reprise everything that was said at the seminar about the poem, because I dont think I could do Vendler justice, but will say that I came away thinking that this was a curious way indeed to write about a father who has just died. Why include the details about the silk kimono or the delicate blue thread? The doily shade and the admonishing statement from mother?
In part, the answer lies with something that any famous poet knows about his/her verse, expressed best by Shakespeare when he wrote the Sonnets: that only his verse would keep his lover alive [Sonnet 18: So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,/So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.]. Lowell knew the same thing about his standing as a poet in relation to the importance of his own fathers life; in other words, that if his father achieved immortality it could only come in Lowells poetry. Lowell shows a man who is complacent in a life that is not his own, defeated from beginning to end. Its the room of a man dominated and soft: blue threads, doily shade, the robe, a book with a chastising remark from his mother, the domination complete, child and man, son and husband.
I went home thinking, Why tell this? I read more about Lowell in Vendlers own work, Voices and Visions and The Music of What Happens and in Ian Hamiltons powerful biography, Robert Lowell. I found a Robert Lowell who once knocked his father down with a punch, who was told by his psychiatrist that he was unwanted. This same psychiatrist, incidentally, may have been the lover of Lowells mother. This was the same Robert Lowell who was told by his own mother that when she was pregnant with him, she would walk by the ocean saying I wish I were dead, I wish I were dead. This was the Lowell, who said of himself when he was a child, I wasnt a child at all... but felt like Agrippina in the Golden House of Nero."
After the death of his mother, Lowell wrote in his poem, Sailing Home from Rapallo, that she was a corpse wrapped like panettone in Italian tinfoil. Hmm. Try to think of Mrs. Lowell in another way now. An axe is being ground here and then planted deep in someones skull. How can we trust someone who seems so desperate to get even? We cant even guess at all of the other complexities in Lowells relationship with his parents, but we do know what he chooses to tell us when they have died. I, for one, find it suspect.
After the Vendler seminar, a larger question kept haunting me: Do we trust any narrator who is writing about him/herself? I have always felt skeptical, especially when someone polemicizes and I think a close reading is in order not only in poetry but in any narrative form. During our seminar we read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. In the course of our reading, I came across a stunning anecdote in the epilogue. Alex Haley writes about Malcolm turning manuscript pages until he comes to a part about how Malcolm had kept his burglary gang in line in the days when he was a criminal in Boston. The narrative in the body of the autobiography has Malcolm showing himself to be the toughest of the tough by playing Russian roulette and forcing the others who refused to play to back down (14243). Yet, in Haleys epilogue, we see Malcolm laughing and saying that maybe that part should be removed because he was bluffing and had palmed the bullet. Eventually, Malcolm decides the story should stay in the autobiography, despite its being false. Keep in mind that Malcolm never knew the book would be printed with Haleys epilogue that he was willing to let the lie stand.
Haley does something extraordinary here, implicitly telling us all to beware of autobiography, of what someone chooses to tell us about himself. Think about it in the context of another story told by Malcolm X about himself: he tells us that he taught himself to read in prison, using the dictionary and beginning with aardvark. A good story, now very famous and often quoted. Yet earlier in the same autobiography, he tells us that he got all As in eighth grade and was the top student in his class in Michigan. I have taught eighth grade and I know that the top student in an eighth grade class is a fairly sophisticated reader, certainly not one who needs to learn to read again at the age of twenty.
Does all of this mean that the book is a lie and should not be read with students? No, but I think it is a valuable lesson for them in the nature of narration. It is valuable to ask why a person chooses certain stories when telling his/her own story, especially when that story is a polemic. This mans co-biographer admits that Malcolms cause was more important than the fine points of truth, but that in itself doesnt make his cause any less true. People tell us stories for a reason. Malcolms is clear. The value of Malcolms story lies in the undisputable fact that Malcolm was once a con man who rose to greatness through a belief in a higher power and an understanding that honor and self-respect were greater than any riches. If he embellishes or mythologizes, we have to accept that he does so for a good cause a cautionary tale in which he uses the authority of his life on the streets and in prison to reach young people who are headed down the same path he once took.
The Russian roulette story and the aardvark story both carry a message to those kids: Dont do what I did. Value education. Learn to read, then read. Learn. Believe. Make yourself better and do it now. And yet I think we are obliged as teachers to deal with anything we find to be suspect in his or any other narrative. To do otherwise would be disingenuous, or worse, dismissive of Malcolms complex nature and his life.
I have another reason for feeling this way about narration, and that is that I am a writer. I once wrote a story about a friend of mine for the Brookline Foundation publication, Reflections. When we both returned from Vietnam, my friend Eric slowly deteriorated and finally ended up an alcoholic on the streets. I was powerless to help him. It was a good piece, I think, and fairly moving. At one time, I might have told you that it was an honest piece but in the spirit of what I am saying about Malcolm X and Robert Lowell and about my reading of history for my project, I will tell you now that I really dont know if any of it is true. Much of memory is on rails. And I am not sure anymore if I told Erics story, or if I am remembering my telling of a story I have thought about and told often.
I know there is a great deal of truth in the story, but I dont really know anymore what I remember about Vietnam or about Eric or about his descent. From writing our story, I do know that autobiography is skewed, varnished. It has gaps, intentional and otherwise. The story is embellished to make the teller look good. I can say that I hadnt really thought about the truth of my friend for twenty years until one early morning at the ACLS meeting in Rancho Mirage, on a day when I was to present my part of the Brookline/Cambridge report on the seminar and the effect it had on our lives. I woke and saw so many things I had left unsaid. I had ignored much of what was painful. Gone were many of my sins of omission and commission. I had corrected some things that I really could not change, I made myself look better than I had been. Most of this had come at my friends expense. I had never intended to tell a lie in my narration, but I didnt tell the truth. I can tell you now that this much is true: a great deal of narration is too humiliating to repeat, except to yourself in the deepest, darkest recesses of the soul at four in the morning. Then its hard not to be honest.
Richard Young is the Kindergarten-Grade 8 Social Studies Coordinator for the town of Brookline, MA. He has taught since 1986. He was a 199495 ACLS fellow.