Famously, Billy Collins in his poem “Introduction to Poetry,” laments that all students want to do “is tie the poem to a chair with rope / and torture a confession out of it.” He’s not indicting the students so much as the teachers who taught them this practice. But what is a teacher of an introductory poetry class to do when students say of Collins’ controversial poem “Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes” that Collins clearly doesn’t like Dickinson’s poetry, for example? I have been teaching college literature and writing since 1999, and it becomes more and more the case that students think that a piece of literature can mean anything they want it to mean. They feel this way especially about poetry because, perhaps, poetry is the genre they struggle with the most.
In the backlash to New Criticism’s focus on discerning authorial intention, critics and poetry teachers began to suggest through Reader Response theory that it’s not just the author’s intent that matters, but also the reader’s experience of meaning. I agree with Reader Response. In my opinion, a reader may bring a different identity to the poem she reads and see things in it that the author did not necessarily intend to put there – things that are nonetheless there and valid.
For example, I just taught Death of a Salesman, and I drew attention during class discussion to what a sad sack Willy Loman is for remaining so long in his delusional worldview that he is becoming literally unhinged. A student offered up that he admires Willy’s optimism because for every ninety-nine optimists who fail, there will be one who achieves great things for himself and society. This comment was made by a particularly strong student, and I thought it was a good point. As long as this student realizes, and I think he does, that Arthur Miller presents a scathing indictment of the American tendency to live with our heads in the clouds and not face and deal with the truth, I think it’s fine for him to admire Willy’s optimism. But often these applications of personal belief to what a story or play or poem is “getting at” result in misreading that goes further and further afield the more “evidence” for the opinion that is proffered.
I actively tried to counter this trend a couple semesters ago by bringing in Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz.” I had noticed over the years that there is always a contingency of students who see suggestions that the father abuses the son in this poem, so I thought the poem would provide a good opportunity for me to demonstrate why poetry does not mean anything you want it to mean. If we carefully examine the poem as a class, went my logic, they will see that it’s predominantly a fond memory being recounted. The class discussion proved disastrous. Perhaps I let the contingency who saw abuse in the poem talk a little too long before leading the class through what the poem was actually suggesting, but I ended up with essays saying “In my opinion, a poem can mean many things, and in my opinion, ‘My Papa’s Waltz’ shows an abusive, alcoholic father mistreating his son while a passive mother looks on.”
On his blog, poet Edward Byrne discusses this same phenomenon in his classroom in relation to “My Papa’s Waltz” and notes “In the era this poem was authored, the late-1940s, readers would not have shared the same sensibilities about these issues that contemporary readers exhibit. Certainly, the definition of child abuse would not have been as broad as that expressed by my students, and a man returning home with whiskey on his breath after a day of work would not immediately raise great concern since it would not have been very unusual.”
And that’s part of the problem. Many students don’t have a strong sense of history. Most things we read are either “relatable” or “elitist,” and elitist pretty much means “not easy to relate to.” It can be not easy to relate to because it uses big words, is too long, houses complex concepts, is from another historical time period and so is too foreign, but any of the above disqualifies it as a likable poem. One of the most important things I learned as a student was to consider the historical context of everything I read. It’s automatic now: What year was it written? Where? What was going on in that country at the time? What was the author’s attitude toward the subjects he or she treats in her piece?
But historical understanding is not the only problem here. There’s also the popularity of relativism. Perhaps because we have (thankfully) become more inclusive and welcoming to diversity in our circles, we tend to be more potently aware that there are multiple ways of looking at any one thing. Different people have different things to bring to the table, most assuredly. But that doesn’t mean that Collins doesn’t respect Dickinson’s poetry or that “My Papa’s Waltz” is about a memory of abuse. I try to explain to classes that some readings of poems are indeed better than others, and they think I’m just being a hard ass. And maybe I am. I feel the twenty plus years I’ve spent reading and writing and studying with masters have honed my skills as a reader in ways someone just starting out hasn’t had the opportunity to develop yet. Some of the students consistently blow me away with their acumen and highly perceptive reading skills. But they, too, serve as reminders that “we” are on the same page. I’m always trying to strike a balance between letting students discover what a poem means on their own and making sure absurd readings are not being considered correct. It’s definitely a balancing act.