Tag Archives: reading

“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?