The practical uses of poetry

Posted: April 17, 2012

‘That was the stupidest poem ever.”

Imogene, a ninth-grade English student, was critiquing my favorite poem, “Year’s End,” by Richard Wilbur. Such moments in teaching give me second thoughts about whether I should have gone into law, or plastics.

I actually enjoy answering the question: “Why do we have to read this poem?” But more and more, the question has become: “Why do we have to read poetry?” This was essentially Imogene’s lament, and it made me feel like a defender of the faith — a solitary English teacher facing the forces of darkness, chaos, and MTV. The resonant literary image, the ordered experience and cadence of the sentence, the counterpoint of the paragraph, and the music of the muse needs preservation — though we may be bloodied in the attempt!

Sometimes I also see the English teacher as a carnival barker, enticing wary, jaded ninth graders into the tent of poetry: “Pssst! Hey, kid, want to see the Greatest Poem Ever Written? Hurry, hurry, hurry!”

Or he can be a trial lawyer, summoning expert witnesses to defend the “stupidest poem ever”: “Poetry takes life by the throat” (Robert Frost). “Poetry is the synthesis of Hyacinths and biscuits” (Carl Sandburg). “Poetry is the bill and coo of sex” (Elbert Hubbard).

In this National Poetry Month, the freshman question persists: “Why do we have to read this?” “Because it’s good for you” isn’t a workable answer. “Because it’s on the test” is as pernicious as the question. “Because it’s soul food” is getting closer to the mark.

A freshman English student is ready to realize that a word can contain truth and beauty. As the newsman Eric Sevareid said, “One good word is worth a thousand pictures.” Or, as one of my students might put it, “This word has deep inner meanings.”

Laundromat moments

I owed Imogene a response. In fact, the whole class was waiting.

“Imogene, when you’re 35 and sitting in a laundromat, in desperate need of inspiration, a poem — perhaps this very poem — will call to you. Its words, lying dormant in your heart, will have been waiting to be needed.

“And then you will respond to its truth and beauty. This poem and its ‘deep inner meaning’ will be there for you, because it is ‘hyacinths and biscuits’ and because it ‘takes life by the throat.’ Then you will thank your freshman English teacher for having had the vision to bring it into your life.”

This was more than beckoning into the carnival tent; this was juggling with fire on a high wire. Imogene, appreciative of my spiel, snapped her gum.

I thought back to Mr. Frank, my 11th-grade English teacher, who assigned “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock.” T.S. Eliot’s poem sounded lovely, but what was its deep inner meaning? “Why are those women coming and going?” I remember agonizing. “And what does Michelangelo have to do with it?” But the words beckoned me into the tent of poetry. “Let us go then, you and I”: Here were words worth a thousand pictures.

I later wrote an undergraduate thesis on Eliot’s Four Quartets, and I have often returned to poems from high school during my own laundromat moments. Poems now seem absolutely utilitarian, as useful as emergency flares in a car’s glove compartment. Poems belong in the toolbox, under the sink with the plunger, and in the bedside drawer. Take note, Imogene, and spit out your gum!

Tapestries of afterthought

“Didn’t you at least admire that gripping couplet in the last stanza?” We had decided that two lines in Wilbur’s “Year’s End” had a particularly haunting appeal:

“We fray into the future, rarely wrought

Save in the tapestries of afterthought.”

Such taut beauty is central to the power of poems — and to the logic of insisting that freshmen read them. In Wilbur’s ironic imagery, advancing into the future is unraveling, a fraying of the fabric of past and present; or it is a ragged skirmish between what has been and what will be. We teach poems to young readers in the hope of stocking afterthought, creating a background of powerful words that will call to us if we unravel.

The fray, like the foreground in a painting, is the immediate action, the apparent subject. But the foreground is not the complete picture. Often, it’s only a distraction, a truncated view, dumb to a breakthrough that might be tucked into the corners. Tapestries contain many foregrounds, but the grand movement of the story is in the background.

The lens of afterthought focuses on what we truly are, as when remembering a past teacher’s inspiration and, years later, understanding it for the first time, seeing the wisdom entrusted to us for discovery at a later date — a rendezvous with Eliot or Wilbur at the laundromat.

“The poem will be on the test next week,” the English teacher might say, but the truth is that the poem is on the test you take when you marry, choose a job, have a child, or teach.

So we teachers answer the Imogenes of our classrooms in the faith that the wisdom we’ve shared will blossom in afterthought: Imogene, you’re being entrusted with the Greatest Poem Ever Written. Someday, when you need it, you’re going to step into the tent of poetry.

Todd R. Nelson is head of school at the School in Rose Valley. He can be reached at

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