Humpty Dumpty in poetry class

Like Humpty Dumpty in Wonderland, undergrads think poetry means whatever they say it means, regardless of the words, setting, form, tone and rhetorical devices, writes Stephen Zelnick, who teaches English at Temple, on Minding the Campus.  He committed the thought crime of telling a student her interpretation of a poem was wrong. Wrong! How could that be. It was her opinion!

In an online discussion, students argued poems evoke feelings; meaning is irrelevant or unknowable. So why bother?

It is a sad business for students that words mean something particular, that “churlish” is not a term of praise, as I had to tell one “Humpty-Dumpty-ite.” She called me “pretentious,” though I am not sure what she meant. . . .  Poems, sad to say, are not Rorschach patterns but carefully constructed designs.

Poetry for my students happens in a sacred grove where creativity runs naked and free and where no opinion is unworthy or fails to earn astonished praise.

Via Maggie’s Farm.

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Comments

  1. Why is this a surprise? For the last several decades, students have rarely, if ever, been expected to differentiate between “I think” and “I feel”. The importance of their own feelings, and the consequent self-reference and self-absorption has been celebrated from kindergarten onward. They have been taught neither the subject-area content nor the structure of a logical argument because so much of the education establishment is not interested in objective, logical arguments supported by facts. It’s much easier to focus on emotions and politically correct platitudes. Those who differ seem to be the minority.

  2. Yes, they sound more impressionable than opinionated.

  3. Margo/Mom says:

    “Why is this a surprise? For the last several decades, students have rarely, if ever, been expected to differentiate between “I think” and “I feel”. The importance of their own feelings, and the consequent self-reference and self-absorption has been celebrated from kindergarten onward.”

    While I don’t necessarily agree that self-reference and self-absorbtion have been celebrated, I will suggest that it’s difficult to teach what you don’t know. I cannot tell you how many times I have cited federal law (IDEA) requirements to principals only to get the response, “well, of course you’re entitled to your opinion.” While these situations do deny any “rightness” or fact–they also imply that opinion has not value.

  4. Is this phenomenon restricted to poetry? Are students also free to interpret prose in whatever manner they wish?

    Over twenty years ago, a classmate in my high school English class kept coming up with highly implausible interpretations of literary works, as if she were hoping to earn extra points for creativity. Fortunately the teacher had little tolerance for her attempts to think far out of the box. I don’t mean to say that there is one and only one “right” interpretation of a work in the sense that two plus two always equals four, but I don’t believe in anything goes either.

    Maybe my classmate would flourish in academia today.

    Note that some of the examples of the students’ interpretations of poetry are PC (feminist and anti-religion). Ideology has overtaken real analysis. And I would be just as disturbed if poetry were misread to promote conservative agendas.

  5. If you’re an English lit major, you think you know what is the “right” interpretation, whether it be prose or poetry. I almost flunked Freshman English in college (in the ’60’s) because my eminently reasonable interpretaions went contrary to what the instructor believed. It has nothing to do with feel versus think; it has everything to do with arrogant English lit professors. Sometimes the green light at the end of the harbor is simply a navigation buoy.

  6. I dated a poet for 5 years. This post does not surprise me at all. Poems mean whatever you want them to mean, whether or not the author had your same ideas or not.

  7. “It has nothing to do with feel versus think; it has everything to do with arrogant English lit professors.”

    Three words: “The Pooh Perplex.”

  8. Well, the poets I hang with don’t think a poem means whatever you want it to. There’s a range of plausible meanings, but there’s also a range of implausible interpretations as well. Our buddy Prof. Fish from upthread has a nice metaphor for Reader Response analysis that involves thinking of the work as a wall. You can climb all over that sucker, but you have to be touching it to be plausible. The test is whether that wall still supports you.

    I really don’t think the problem is cultural as much as English teachers who themselves are not confident with poetry. It’s become sort of a sub-specialty. Even English majors and those with grad degrees in English can avoid all but the most essential poets and poems fairly easily.

    In any case, have kids read excellent poems, give them a foundation in the basic poetic techniques and how they work, and they usually end up with a decent grasp of how to read poetry.

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