Thursday, April 14, 2005

On Teaching the Meaning of Poetry

In terms of teaching poetry, I think that one of the biggest mistakes of teachers is to ask students to find "the" meaning of a poem. In essays, students are often graded on their ability to find "the" meaning. It is a very common error in the education of poetry to reduce contemplation over a poem to a perverse game of Where’s Waldo? There are many reasons why:

First, and most importantly, finding "the" meaning of a poem most likely in no way replicates the writing of poem. I happen to be one of those people who think that most poets have no specific meaning in mind when they initially write their poems. Usually, only after revision does the poet cull the poem into a certain, pleasing shape. But even then, if the poem is halfway decent, then it does not have "a" meaning.

Second and related, I don’t think that poems have any objective meaning. All poems, even the most simplest of poems, mean different things to different people upon different readings. Everyone has a different perspective on a poem. Now, I like the fact that many things in life have right and wrong answers – buildings designed to be earthquake proof, for example. But I’m talking about poems here. Poems are inherently receptive to many different interpretations.

Third, I have no idea why students are asked to find "the" meaning of a poem. Actually, I do have an idea, but I’m afraid of it. I’m afraid that students are asked to engage in this silly exercise simply to develop their intellectual capacity. Now that’s not a bad goal. But it has nothing to do with poetry – understanding, appreciating, or loving it. My suggestion would be not to use poetry in such dirty, deductive, logic-inducing activities.

Fourth, I think that the craving for meaning sometimes steers teachers away from poems, and types of poems, that they feel that they are less knowledgeable about. Typically, Asian-American poetry falls under this category. Most American teachers are not Asian-Americans, and they may feel that the experiences in such poetry are not accessible to them. But I'm saying that that's ok. No one has a mastery of all poems, and that's part of the beauty of poetry. The drive to reduce poems to narrow boxes of meaning may inhibt teachers from fully appreciating this beauty and helping their students appreciate it.

Fifth, and also quite importantly, I think that one of the top reasons that we lack readers of poetry is because many students, who later become adults, have been shot down at one time or another by overzealous teachers who unjustifiably blast their free-flowing interpretations out of the sky. People feel paralyzed by their "inability" to read poetry afterwards. But I’ve never come across anyone "unable" to read poetry – only those unwilling. My hypothesis is that their unwillingness lies in some academic trauma induced by some teacher(s) who have erroneously superimposed their interpretation as the correct one.

So what are my recommendations? I think that poetry should be read for enjoyment/pleasure first and that students should not be graded on the basis of their interpretations. I just love it when teachers claim that students are not being graded on their ability to find "the" meaning, but on "how" they find "the" meaning, as if the two phenomena may ever be separated. Grading on the ability to identify multiple meanings does not solve the problem here, because even the belief that there are multiple meanings (assuming that we don’t have the issue of students finding multiple meanings different from those that the teacher has in mind) is a bias in and of itself. Actually, I do not think that poetry essays should be graded at all. It’s counterproductive. In reading a particular poem, as far as the experience of the reader goes, the student typically knows as much as the teacher.


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