“These are poems that require re-reading, maybe even three times.”

She is referring to Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

How hard this poem is! she thinks to herself. I’d better read it a second time!

This explains why students come to class so woefully unprepared when the assigned reading is poetry. Once through, only a few lines, and it’s time to shut the book and party! Of course when I try to get them to talk about their experience of a poem, they tell me, for just about every one, “It’s about love and how sad love is.” Not a bad guess: many many poems are “about” this. Surprisingly, all these poets feel they must say that same thing over and over again, right? If I ask about a specific image in a poem, I get a generic answer: Q: What is the nightingale doing in this poem? A: It is a symbol of love. (Surprise: NOT ALWAYS! and NOT IN THIS POEM!) Now, I wouldn’t want to suggest that they have never read a poem that isn’t about love: The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, Beowulf, even The Lord of the Rings all boil down to this essential theme: “Never give up.” Literature’s great pageant.

Once, after assigning Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “The Snow Storm,” I asked everyone to open their books, reread the poem, and draw the picture created by the first lines—which are, if you haven’t already clicked the link to read the whole poem:

No hawk hangs over in this air:
The urgent snow is everywhere.

So I did not give them a task requiring a lot of artistic talent: the “artist” need only cover the paper with dots and dashes representing snow. The poem goes on to describe people bent over, scurrying under the sideways-driving snow like mice (except that there is no hawk to frighten them). Students might have drawn the people too. The speaker also says that the sharp, icy wind would be too much for the tender flesh under any hawk’s wing…. I’ll bet you have already guessed that of 19 drawings, 18 depicted, with greater or less skill, a hawk sitting on some snow. They swore that they had read the poem carefully. You tell me. Here’s what I’m pretty sure of: they didn’t re-read it.

I used to think that by the time students got to college they understood that poetry, a highly compressed and usually highly allusive genre, required close and participatory reading from the reader. I discovered e.e. cummings all by myself in high school, and I used to pore over his lines, so playful on the page some of them, working to get inside his mind, inside the poem. I didn’t just read the words “as freedom is a breakfast food” or “anyone lived in a pretty how town” or “in Just-,” say “huh!” and feel I grasped the phrase, let alone the whole poem. Who taught me that? Well, I know my English teachers expected it, but I think I just knew it: poetry demands work on the part of the reader.

For Shakespeare, I like to assign “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” along with “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.” Class begins with the obligatory review of the sonnet form, demonstration of iambic pentameter (Your last name is O’Neill! You’re an IAMB! If I say your name five times that will be IAMBIC PENTAMETER!), illustration of Petrarchan and Shakespearean rhyme schemes…and then we “talk about” the sonnets themselves. Here’s what Shakespeare is “kind of saying” in Sonnet 18: The girl he loves is just like a summer’s day, just as beautiful and warm, and she will never fade away, no matter how old she gets. Here’s what he’s “kind of saying” in Sonnet 130: She is ugly! (How rude! He must suddenly hate her now!)

And then I read the actual sonnets aloud, line by line, and walk them toward what the speaker is actually saying. They are always quite surprised. This may be why a student long ago defined “poetry” as “when the writer never says what he means.” Anyway, after this careful reading-cum-discussion, some students always come up after class to say they now LOVE “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.” My joy is brief, though: the next time the class discusses poems that were assigned reading, back we go to the “kind of saying,” the pervasive bird=love pattern, and all the other signs of the old once-over.

Is this because they’ve had too many “find the symbol” and “guess the meaning” exercises in the lower grades? (And it’s not just poetry—this is what they want to do with short stories and plays also.) I know my students have trouble developing a thesis, and I attribute that to hanging around exclusively with people who share their opinions, so they don’t even know a judgment requires a rational defense. For literature, they rush to a quick general “moral of the story” and feel they have said all that needs to be said.

When I think of all the literary lines, images, characters, moments that have enriched my life and given me insights into emotions and ideas I have not previously been able to put into words or even perceive—when I think of how richly textured my imaginative life has been as a consequence of all my reading—I am filled with grief and rage for my students. There is no way that they’re going to learn the reader’s habit of mind and its attendant joys in one semester. I can show them my joy, offer them my insights and knowledge; but until they manage to work their way through to their own, they won’t have the experience themselves. Why has this not already happened for them? Why have they been permitted to equate the reading of literature with moving their eyes over words?

So I laugh at the notion that understanding Shakespeare might take a second and maybe even a third reading, and also hope that this basic discovery might somehow prompt appropriate action and, down the line, bring joy.

Could happen, right?

About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

18 responses to ““These are poems that require re-reading, maybe even three times.”

  • lopeztiana

    This is very interesting. I just completed both a Shakespeare college course and a course called The Restoration and 18th Century literature. In both of those classes it seemed our professors had a difficult time getting students to read and most of the time the response was this exact thing (that it was too difficult), I admit sometimes I felt that way as well. As a future teacher I think of ways to make students engage and use their imagination !


    • RAB

      As long as we permit “reading” to be equated with “decoding,” or figuring out what the words just are, we’re encouraging students to make that equation over and over again. I’ve had students tell me Shakespeare is “stupid” because they have trouble understanding a speech, poem, or play on the first reading. BUT I can recall spending hours on the phone back in high school, working with my best friend to do the Latin homework. Once we got what all the words translated to, we had to figure out how they worked in the possible grammatical structures of the sentence; then we had to figure out how that sentence related to the adjacent ones. THEN we could actually translate the passage into something that made sense and sounded human. The best part of what I learned then was that it doesn’t matter how long understanding takes; all that matters is keeping at it until understanding is reached—an understanding that takes all the details into account, and the human probabilities, not just a quick-and-easy one-size-fits-all generalization (like “Caesar is angry”). I do think students will learn how to engage and use their imagination if they are assured that the work is its own reward and that “getting” the passage will fill them with pleasure.

  • Mary Jane Schaefer

    Do you have to be raised in a home where books are everywhere,
    and someone is always being anti-social or staying up too late because “they just had to finish it”? Do you have to be lucky enough to have a teacher who finds the Right book for you, and suddenly you experience what literature can DO to you? Do you have to live in a culture that allows you to develop an long attention span? Do you have to be able to endure silence and your own company, even welcome them? Do you have to be desperate to get away from your own mind and into someone else’s?
    What does it take?
    I know people who have a flair for language and enjoy writing. Their
    work doesn’t interest me, because their frames of reference are so
    narrow, so modern, so isolated from all the things that came before and
    that enrich a culture that preserves its past. How can you be at ease
    with yourself if you live in an unfurnished mind? (Slightly flawed figure of speech. Maybe if you read it “three times even” it might work anyway.)

  • Bryan

    I always enjoy your blog, but you’re particularly eloquent here. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. You nailed it: “when I think of how richly textured my imaginative life has been as a consequence of all my reading” …

  • RAB

    I like the figure of speech though. The furniture of the mind does determine the quality of life lived there….

  • Susan P

    Yes! What you wrote. I was in a literature class in college where we read T.S. Eliot’s Four Quarters. I followed along, but did not get much out of it at that time. Recently, I revisited it and found it rich and comforting. I read it over several times because the depth of the poem filled places in me that needed both the starkness and the comfort in that work. So, persevere; maybe as some of those students mature, they may understand the purpose of poetry.

  • RAB

    Right you are. Thanks for the hope!

  • philosophermouseofthehedge

    Poetry is hard. Elusive. Demanding. Even teachers years ago struggled teaching it – most avoided it or shoved it down to the last few weeks (when students were tired, hot, sleepy and ready for summer). Most just assigned the reading and questions at the end for quiet classwork. If you were lucky to get a teacher who “got” poetry and loved it, then most of the kids would get lured into it, too – but that’s a rare event even more now.
    Multiple choice tests and repeating chants have robbed student of the opportunity to study what words can say – words with different levels of meanings.
    The other problem is, as you say, confusing decoding with reading. If they are being honest (HA like there’s a chance) education companies and their researched based programs will admit many of the decoding/reading programs work well but after grade 3-4 the kids stall out and don’t easily make the jump from learning to read to reading to learn. The original “Open Court” (which so many are based on) texts wasn’t suggested much for US public schools after 3rd grad as the whole thing is a sequence/ building blocks program that is liberally sprinkled with classic and diverse literature and poetry all the way up. It was thought too difficult for US students with too many words in selections with a glorious vocabulary (and vocabulary building process). The version used in Europe and in some private schools here is close to the original version – and much more difficult. Do schools here think all US kids are dolts, the teachers can’t teach, or too many would fail and have hurt feelings – and those mandated test scores? SIgh.
    Easy to get angry about it. My 8-9 grade kids with police records and ankle monitors loved Shakespeare. I tried to run their class along with the literature used in the gifted classes I also taught – you teach them pretty much the same. (The “low level” kids would swagger around bragging they were doing the same work as the smart kids. If they complained, I’d say, well if ya’ll want we can use those – and point to the watered down “baby books” they hated.) Read most of it out loud. We ‘d stop and talk about it as we went – and it took longer and was unpredictable. And it was hard work for everyone. But they (eventually) loved the style and language and words, and action. If nothing else, some would smile as adults when Shakespeare was mentioned. That matters more than some of the decoding to me.
    (Sorry for the length, but what you are saying in this post is so important)

  • RAB

    I love your account of teaching Shakespeare. I am sure they still thank you for your care, the respect you had for them, what you helped them to discover.
    On the opposite end, when I used to teach Angela Carter’s fabulous sexual-initiation (not obvious) story “The Erl-king” in my college Intro to Fiction class, I routinely got complaints that the author “had no right” to use “all those hard words.” The vocabulary in that story is so rich, so allusive, so vivid, and yes, so challenging that reading it is itself a kind of initiation into an adult or sophisticated universe. They evidently didn’t want to go there. They had been taught by something in their culture that reading shouldn’t be difficult and that writers should always take the reader’s needs and desires into account. Many of these readers did change their minds, at least part-way, after we looked closely at some of Carter’s word choices and what they added to the story, although I doubt that any of them then went on to seek out more “hard” reading. Thanks for your great comment.

  • sarahjesusnlily

    I had to read Shakespeare in high school and didn’t understand it at all, but I certainly didn’t assume that the fault was Shakespeare’s, but rather mine. I would never think the author was stupid because I didn’t understand his work, especially after only one reading of the material, and particularly when the author was someone of the caliber of Shakespeare.

    I also had to read poetry in high school and in college back then (Ozymandias comes to mind), and I didn’t fare any better with that. It wasn’t until I began to write my own poetry many years later that I was able to understand poetry in general, and I discovered this new-found ability while taking a class where I had to write a paper on T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.

    The moral of the story is twofold: first, always give a work of literature at least two chances (three or four would be even better). Second, never assume that your inability to understand what you’re reading is the fault of the author – he or she has been around and writing a whole lot longer than you’ve been reading.

    These are my thoughts, for what little they’re worth…

    • sarahjesusnlily

      …and I forgot the most important part: as always, I really enjoy your blog, and this posting in particular!

    • RAB

      And very good advice, too! What constantly stuns me is students’ assumption that reading ANY literature, and especially poetry, is a once-through deal, pretty much the same as reading an article in USA Today. The literature I teach, I have read countless times. The literature I write about (or, in the case of plays, direct) I have read even more than that. Why would students think less would be okay? …Although your mention of coming to this understanding as a result of writing is perhaps key here: most of my students seem also to think that writing (creative or expository) is a matter of typing a capital letter and then going straight on for a number of paragraphs or pages until there’s nothing more to say, and then stopping. “Revision” is a matter of going back and fixing the spelling, maybe putting in a few commas. So I can’t even say “It’s fair for the poet to expect you to put as much work and thought into reading the poem as he or she put into writing it,” because that would communicate “Once through, and then go back for a few tweaks.”

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