Poetry is a genre of writing whose audience is generally limited to its practitioners. That is, the largest population of readers for most practicing poets is other practicing poets. Poets like to get together and bitch about this, bemoaning a lack of education about poetry in elementary and high schools, or the over-intellectualization of poetry, or the under-intellectualization of poetry, or the entering of creative writing programs in academia, or the dumbing down of the American public via TV/the internet/smart phones, or any other number of straw men. Why aren’t more people reading poetry? This question is similar to questions like, “Why don’t more people go to the ballet,” or “Why don’t more people listen to opera?” Is it simply that we are failing to educate young people about arts and culture?
I think a lot of people have bad experiences with poetry at a young age. When I w as in the eighth gr ade, I had a terrible English teacher. Although he did teach me to a diagram a sentence (a skill I think would benefit all school children), he was also mean. My middle school was housed in a run-down former high school in a rural school district. The 1930s building was literally crumbling around us. The classroom where this teacher taught had a hole in the sheetrock of one of its walls wall and one day in class he slammed a student who was picking at the hole forward in his desk so hard that the desk rocked over. To provide a little context, this occurred at a public school in the early nineties, long after corporal punishment had been prohibited in public schools.
This teacher was also prone to assigning “journal” topics that all students were required to write about. These journal topics were really just restatements of his own opinions. If you didn’t agree with him, you got a bad grade on your journal. One that I remember in particular was the adage, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” We all had to write a one-page journal in which we agreed with this statement. I was old enough to recognize the nincompoopery of that platitude and disagreed. I got a bad grade.
One week this teacher came in to class and had us read Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” It was clear that he fancied himself similar to the speaker of the poem. His interpretation of it was narrow, and, I would now say, incorrect: that taking the road less traveled leads to a more fulfilling life. So often Frost’s poems are misinterpreted down to simplistic morals, as though they were Aesop’s fables. Whenever I teach “Mending Wall,” I have students insist to me that the message of the poem is that good fences make good neighbors, despite the fact that the speaker of that poem openly mocks that sentiment. This bad teacher no doubt assigned a journal on “The Road Not Taken;” I’m sure I got a bad grade.
My point is, this bad experience was enough to turn me, a person who was inclined to reading and loving poetry, and who started reading Emily Dickinson independently at fourteen, off from Frost for nearly ten years. It wasn’t until I was studying at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and took a class with James Galvin in which we really read and considered Frost’s more complex poems like “Home Burial” that I realized Frost’s poetic genius.
In another class at Iowa, I remember Bob Hass telling the students that he’d recently read that the most hated poem in America was “The Red Wheelbarrow,” because so many high school students were asked to read and “interpret” it in English classes. Presumably, many of them were told their interpretations were wrong, or many were frustrated at the task of interpreting a sixteen-word poem that mostly consists of a single image. I usually teach Williams’ “This is Just to Say” in Intro to Creative Writing, a poem with a little more meat on its bones than “The Red Wheelbarrow.” I’m surprised, though, at how many students have horror stories about “The Red Wheelbarrow” that they feel the need to confess during our discussion of “This is Just to Say.” One student I had a couple years ago told me that her English teacher insisted the poem was about Communism, and that she had to write a paper to that effect. Communism? I guess because the wheelbarrow is red?
All of this has left me wondering what other poems are being ruined by bad teachers, at both the high school and college level, who insist on monolithic, limiting interpretations of poems, and, in the process, reinforce the idea that poems are confusing riddles that only certified experts can decode. Perhaps this is part of the reason why so many Americans don’t read poetry. Of course, if there really were only one interpretation of a poem, it would be easier format the acquisition of poetic knowledge to a scan-tron and slap it on to one of the many zero-sum standardized tests we subject school children to.