How I Learned to Stop Caring and Love the Verse

This is the third article in a series inspired by Paul Lockhart’s essay “A Mathematician’s Lament.” It is a meditation on Art, Mathematics and Education. The first part, “Why Them Kids Don’t Learn Nothing,” is primarily about education. The second part, “If Triangles Could Fly,” talks about art as a process of discovery, and this third part is a story of my first experiences with poetry.

 

The impression we are given is of something very cold and highly technical, that no one could possibly understand— a self-fulfilling prophesy if there ever was one.

– Paul Lockhart, “A Mathematician’s Lament”

It wasn’t the only time this happened, but it was the most absurd. I was somewhere in the middle of 11th grade, sitting in my advanced track English class. We were reading and discussing poetry. By this point, poetry was already the bane of my existence, and what was passing for discussion in class was the biggest reason. The poem under the microscope at the point this story gets interesting was some Sylvia Plath thing that talked about a gargoyle and may have had some “slick with rain” imagery going on as well. I can’t remember.

The way it worked was simple. Someone was called upon to read the poem. They did, in that halting, uncomfortable way someone reads something they don’t understand. Then the teacher asked the, “What did that poem mean?” question. No one would answer it, so the teacher would narrow down the question, aiming for the answer she already had written down on her lesson plan. “When she talked about the rain-slick gargoyle, what was she saying?”

No one in the class had given a single reaction to this poem yet. No one had even shown much interest in it. Yet here we were, being asked to pick out a single metaphor from the work as a whole. Some students reached into the clouds and pulled out a few random answers, until the teacher got bored with it all and just told us what the damned gargoyle in the damned rain meant and tried to move on.

Of course, I didn’t let her. “How do you know that’s what it means?” I asked. There’s probably one of me in every English class, laying in wait with our subjective viewpoint and our theories of literary relativity. In her defense, my teacher was genial about these interruptions, and for a few minutes we went back and forth, her telling me she just knew and me saying she couldn’t, unless she was hiding the author’s notebook back there somewhere.

We weren’t alone. My 11th grade advanced English class occasionally joined forces with the senior, AP level English class to talk poetry together. The 12th grade teacher, who to this point had been sitting at one of the desks quietly, suddenly stood up, berated me for being disrespectful to my teacher, and stormed out.

Later, I was called to that 12th grade teacher’s class where I was told that she was sick of people acting like literature wasn’t a science, and that there weren’t right and wrong answers in the field. I had joined the ranks of those troublemakers who wanted to discuss writing, and from that point forward my grades in that class dropped from A’s and B’s to C’s and D’s.

This was how I learned to hate writing.

If teaching is reduced to mere data transmission, if there is no sharing of excitement and wonder, if teachers themselves are passive recipients of information and not creators of new ideas, what hope is there for their students?

– Paul Lockhart, “A Mathematician’s Lament”

Only, I didn’t.

What happened in my mind through high school was a form of literary schizophrenia. I loved to read, and nothing in school ever got me to stop. Reading was something I learned from my family, not school, and so school had no power over it. I also really enjoyed writing, but the only kind of writing I was asked to do in school I was bad at. If you had asked me at any point during school what I thought of writing, I’d have said I hated it and I was going to become a programmer. At the same time, I was starting my school’s first literary magazine and writing for it. What those English classes did, I think, was convince me I wasn’t any good at it. For most people, that eventually leads to “I don’t want to do it,” too. It may have with me, if I hadn’t gotten lucky.

The casualty of my high school English education was poetry. I never really read it prior to having it assigned in class, and nothing about the way it was taught to me gave me a taste for it. Unlike prose, which I loved independently from school, poetry was ripe for the I’m No Good=I Don’t Like It equation. I didn’t understand it, and while I was sure my teachers weren’t right about the meaning of the stuff they were putting in front of me, I didn’t have the tools to find my own meaning. I also didn’t have the interest. Thus, poetry sucked.

Why aren’t we giving our students a chance to even hear about these things, let alone giving them an opportunity to opinions, and reactions?

– Paul Lockhart, “A Mathematician’s Lament”

When Paul Lockhart discusses the failure of our mathematics program, he talks a lot about how we don’t give our kids the chance to discuss the problems, to react to the solutions and to offer their own opinions. The rote transmission of information, the memorization of that information and then the regurgitation of it onto tests is what convinces people that they don’t like something because they don’t understand it.

I didn’t like poetry because I never learned an appreciation for it. I was never allowed to react to it, or to wrestle with its own particular intersections of form and intent. Being a good reader isn’t really something you can teach, per se. Neither is being a good writer. Learning to express yourself in a specific form, and how to understand someone else’s work in that same form, is a constant process. You get better at it the more you do it, and in my experience you never get best at it. There’s always a higher rung on the ladder. The only way to find it is to read and write more. And the only way you’re ever going to do that is to first learn how to enjoy it.

I never really read a poem in high school, and the only time I wrote one was when I was told “Write a sonnet.” Knowing nothing about sonnets save their meter, I produced what I can only imagine was a lifeless, awful piece of verse. The only thing I knew to do with a sonnet was to look at the number of lines and pick out that the analogy in that specific poem was the flower being the man’s lover.

Yet, when I went home and finished the fourth book of The Wheel of Time, I spent hours tearing it apart, talking about the scenes I thought were powerful and about what I thought would happen next. I didn’t talk about plot structure or chart out that stupid narrative pyramid, nor did I always use words like foreshadowing and dramatic irony, but I knew what worked in that story and, more importantly, I knew why. Because I called up my friends and I debated about it.

‘No society would ever reduce such a beautiful and meaningful art form to something so mindless and trivial; no culture could be so cruel to its children as to deprive them of such a natural, satisfying means of human expression. How absurd!’

– Paul Lockhart, “A Mathematician’s Lament”

The trick, I learned much later, was to realize that the teaching had been flawed and not my ability. I shouldn’t even call it a trick, because it took me almost a decade to really understand that. In fact, long after I decided my English teachers were full of it and that I could write if I damned well wanted to, I still let the lingering anger at verse stick with me. I had my own, personal feelings on prose that overrode the reduction of it a formula containing metaphor, symbolism, man vs. nature conflict and third person omniscient viewpoint. I had nothing of the kind for poetry, so the trivialization of it became what the form was, to me. I knew they were full of it, yet I still bought into their crap when it came to verse.

Finally, after years of prodding by my friends who hadn’t been so tainted, I’m coming around. I’m reading Bukowski and liking it. I’m even thinking about what it means. That makes me lucky. Most people never challenge their school-borne assumptions of a subject, and I can’t blame them. What stimuli do we have outside of school that would cause us to reexamine something and see if the reason we didn’t like it was because it wasn’t for us, or because we had been never been allowed to learn what it was?

That’s got me thinking. Have we reached a point when we need to teach our children not to care what their teachers say? I had a lot of good teachers, so that can’t be true, yet I only learned to love poetry after I stripped what my English instructors taught me of any authority. School makes noise about wanting to teach critical thinking skills for the Real World, and in that they have have inadvertently succeeded. If kids are going to come out of school having learned something, it’s going to have to start with more students able to look at a D on their Literature paper and decide if it was because they didn’t understand the assignment, or because they did.

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One Response to How I Learned to Stop Caring and Love the Verse

  1. M. Wargula says:

    Another example of “If you meet the Buddah in the street, kill him.”

    Critical thinking, and doubt is imperative to learning in every discipline.

    I’m not sure if my personal experiences with poetry were delusional or grandiose, but I did trust my instinct regardless of how subjective they were.

    If things don’t makes sense to you, reject them.

    Teachers should teach that.

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