Friday, April 11, 2008

The Language of Life: Some Rambling Words for National Poetry Month

I have two degrees in English, a BA and an MA.

Yet I was late, very late, coming around to poetry. I think it's safe to say I never got completely comfortable with it until I had to teach it, and even then it took a while.

I'm not sure why. The wrong professors? The wrong poems? The wrong method of teaching (used on me)? The wrong method of teaching (used by me)?

I think it began with self-recrimination: I don't get it, I thought. I'm too stupid to get it. And more than a few professors did have a (I believe unintentional) bad habit of dismissing comments with a wave of the hand and saying, "no, that's not it." As a teacher, I try very hard to give most interpretations a fair hearing -- I'm a BIG believer in multiple interpretations. I try very hard not to wave the hand, but instead ask for further explanation. Sometimes I'm eventually convinced of the validity of the student's idea. Often, if the interpretation is way off base (I think that necklace is a symbol for a space alien), another student will chime in and help set her peer straight.

In fact, I think I've only come across one poem (not that I've read them all, not hardly) for which I would argue that truly, there's only one interpretation. Here it is:


I'm a riddle in nine syllables,
An elephant, a ponderous house,
A melon strolling on two tendrils.
O red fruit, ivory, fine timbers!
This loaf's big with its yeasty rising.
Money's new-minted in this fat purse.
I'm a means, a stage, a cow in calf.
I've eaten a bag of green apples,
Boarded the train there's no getting off.

Sylvia Plath

If it's not obvious to you right away, that's ok. Let me help. The poem has NINE lines. Each line has NINE syllables. Here are some of its images: elephant, ponderous house, melon, fruit, loaf...rising, new-minted in ... fat purse -- well, etc. Every line, all NINE of them. With NINE syllables. Did I mention the importance of NINE?

Yes, of course the poem is about pregnancy. Plath warns us right up front that it's a riddle, and riddles generally only have one right answer. And to argue it's about space aliens or famine or man's alienation in the post-modern era is -- well, stretching it.

However, most poems open their arms wide to allow readers their own intimacy with them. Just as each person's relationships with different people are different relationships, so is each poem's relationship different with different people. My favorite poem may be one on which you wrote the tenth grade paper that earned you your first D. Your favorite poem may remind me of a friend who betrayed me. I may see optimism in a poem that for you signifies the end of the world. I may think that red hat symbolizes courage, while you see shame. And there's a good, good chance we're both "right," which is a relative term anyway.

Prior to the Modern Brit Poetry graduate class that I unintentionally took (a story all of its own), poetry for me was mysteries and math: no, I have no idea what the teacher thinks this poem means, and is da-DAH an iamb or a trochee and why do I care again, exactly? In this class, however, we sat in a circle and discussed the poems! The students, as a group, talked more than the professor! Sometimes he admitted he didn't know how to pronounce a word, or what the poet might have meant by "peanut butter"! This might well have been the first time I was exposed to the idea of multiple meanings in poetry. Remember again that this was a graduate class!

Later, but not much later I'd guess, I stumbled upon Bill Moyers' series The Language of Life on PBS, and it, more than anything, changed my view of poetry. (Ever since, I've wanted to go to the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, a biennial affair that should be on again this fall.) I found the show mid-series, and as far as I know, it has never run again. Too damn bad. I recorded the last few episodes, which are somewhere among my things and not very sharp. The rest I have never seen. Now and then (including just before I started this post), I Googled the series, but I don't see any "news." No hope that it'll be released on DVD or run on PBS again. Not yet. (Its entry on has no message board! So sad! On the other hand, it's so very out of print...) I could, however, buy the VHS set from an entrepreneur on Amazon for $350.00 or more... I do, however, have the book and a few years ago bought the cassette set on eBay brand new for far less than Amazon sellers want for it now.

Anyway, this series, more than anything ever, made me see poetry as something dynamic. Poets read in intimate rooms with Moyers, under tents to crowds, in circles with students. Reading Jimmy Santiago Baca's poetry is one experience; hearing him read it is another experience entirely, another relationship.

So, way to go, Bill Moyers.

This post has gone on almost long enough, so I'll start wrapping it up. I did eventually figure out how to teach poetry, and very few students walk away unable to discuss on paper a poem of their choice (among my choices) with a reasonable level of intelligence. (Note I said nothing about writing skill, just thinking. Another matter entirely.)

And the point, which I'm finally getting to, is that here's the truth about poetry: a person's relationship with poetry is not an either/or proposition: we don't have merely two choices -- (a) like and "get" it all or (b) be a poetry neanderthal. We should give ourselves permission to have a different relationship with each poem. If we like a particular poem, we should like it. If we love a particular poem, we should love it. If we don't understand a particular poem, we should slow down and get to know it a little better. And if after a few tries things are just not working out, we should tell it goodbye and try another.

I'll end the rambling with one of Naomi Shihab Nye's best-known poems, one which works just fine as my own credo:

--Naomi Shihab Nye

The river is famous to the fish.

The loud voice is famous to silence,
which knew it would inherit the earth
before anybody said so.

The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds
watching him from the birdhouse.

The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.

The idea you carry close to your bosom
is famous to your bosom.

The boot is famous to the earth,
more famous than the dress shoe,
which is famous only to floors.

The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it
and not at all famous to the one who is pictured.

I want to be famous to shuffling men
who smile while crossing streets,
sticky children in grocery lines,
famous as the one who smiled back.

I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do.

1 comment:

Brave Sir Robin said...

Your students are very, very lucky to have you Bitty.

I'm certain you are famous to them.