`THAT was the stupidest poem ever.'' Imogene, my 9th 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. Moments like these give me second thoughts about going to law school.
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 need preservation!
My less defensive self-image is the English teacher as carnival barker. To ``teach'' a poem one must entice the wary 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).
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, ``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?
``Imogene, when you're 35 and sitting in a laundromat in desperate need of inspiration, a poem, perhaps this very poem, will call to you. Its words, lying dormant in your heart, will have been waiting to be needed. And then you will respond to its truth and beauty. This poem and its `deep inner meaning' will be there for you because it is `hyacinths and biscuits' and because it `takes life by the throat.' Then you will thank your freshman English teacher for bringing it into your life.'' This was more than beckoning people into the carnival tent - this was juggling with fire on the high wire. Imogene, appreciative of my spiel, snapped her gum.
I thought back to Mr. Frank, my 11th-grade English teacher, who assigned ``The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock.'' 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 ``laudromat experiences.'' A poem now seems absolutely utilitarian, as useful as an emergency flare in a car. Poems belong in the tool box, under the sink, or inserted in the yellow pages to be discovered during a search for a piano tuner.
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.
Teaching poems to young readers is done with the hope of stocking afterthought, creating a background of powerful words that will call to us if we unravel. The fray, like the foreground in a painting, is the immediate action, the apparent subject. But the foreground is not the complete picture. Often it's only a distraction, a truncated view, dumb to a breakthrough of one kind or another that might be tucked away in the corners. Tapestries contain many foregrounds, but the grand movement of the story is in the background.
The lens of afterthought focuses us on what we truly are, as when remembering a teacher's inspiration, years later, and understanding it for the first time, seeing in it the wisdom entrusted to us for later discovery.
Someday the poems from freshman English class may provide 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.