Paper 1 of the International Baccalaureate’s exam in English A Literature requires students to write a commentary on a poem or prose passage they have never seen before. At the higher level, students must proceed without even “guiding questions.” Clearly no education that produces only knowledge of particular poems would prepare these students to do this paper. In yesterday’s lesson my own English A Literature class examined Elizabeth Bishop’s “Anaphora,” a somewhat difficult poem not least because of its title. My students—at least some of them—remember that anaphora is the rhetorical use of identical openings for grammatically parallel sentence elements, of which the most famous example is Lincoln’s statement in the Gettysburg Address that “we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground.” But a second, more obscure, definition comes from the Greek Orthodox liturgy, where the Anaphora is the part of the service roughly corresponding to the Canon of the old Roman Catholic mass.
I thought that this second definition could safely be overlooked when I discussed the poem with my students. I was wrong. I offered my thesis that the anaphora of the title was metaphorical and referred to the parallel and identical “white gold skies” and “brilliant walls” every morning opens with before the “ineffable creature” “the day was meant for” begins its descent to “assume memory and mortal / mortal fatigue.” I explained that the actual, literal anaphora of the poem’s lines 21 and 22 was not the key to the poem, though it was important. I suggested a parallel to Frost’s treatment of the theme in “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” which they studied last semester. As always, I proceeded by allowing the students to question and to offer their own theses. One of my brightest students suggested that the Anaphora was that of the Greek liturgy and wondered whether Bishop was treating religious disillusionment in the poem. This student’s question was more tentative than the declaration of my colleague’s student some years ago about the smut of Emily Dickinson, and its purpose was to elicit a comment from me, and a discussion. In addition to considering and finally rejecting this thesis I made the general point that we have to consider reasonable likelihood in our interpretation of poems. Was it more likely that a poet and writer would use the rhetorical definition to describe the decline of day, or that she, by no means a devoted Christian, would allude to Greek liturgy to treat a daily disillusionment there is no evidence of her having felt? And of course the poem itself would have to support this likely reading. Otherwise, as Kenneth Koch says, we “concentrate on what is not there at the expense of what is.”
During this discussion the students were taking some notes and listening with (at least the semblance of) attention. My sense was that their questions and discussion added to what they got not just about this poem but also about interpreting poems in general. That is, they gained not just knowledge but understanding. What is more, they gained it of a fundamental ability: how to read a poem. The importance of this ability has been recognize by, among others, Charles Darwin, who sadly reported having lost it in the course of his adult life and wishing that he had not.
Whether the cultivation of this ability should be taught to everyone or some people, in high school or in university, could, I suppose, be debated; but it seems hard to deny that it is in some important sense a fundamental prerequisite to an appreciation of the power and potential of language. If I am right that it involves not just knowledge but also understanding, not just hearing and remembering but also formulating and testing, then it is hard to see how it could proceed without give-and-take between student and teacher such as a discussion course allows. It then follows that this fundamental ability cannot be cultivated in an on-line class consisting of lectures or stepwise analysis without question time. It is true that a gifted lecturer might inflame a student’s interest with a fine discussion of a strongly appealing poem, but that is serendipity—not something on which to hang a curriculum.
Of course reading and getting poems is one of many fundamental abilities, the cultivation of which should constitute introductory or general courses. In any fundamental ability requiring understanding—and I mean here to include more than just reading poems—online or “blended” (!) learning will be not just a bad education but what John Dewey, in one of his lucid moments, called miseducation. If a student ends up listening to twenty lectures on poetry and takes away from them the idea that a poem is an obscure communication that really means what the teacher says in the lecture, something profoundly wrong has happened. But how can it be otherwise if the students do not experience reading as at least in part a conversation?
Two dispiriting developments in California’s system of higher education seem to be working against the acquisition of poetry-reading and other fundamental powers. One is the growing appeal of on-line education, which plays to knowledge only and not to understanding. The second is the shameful administrative and educational disaster of not having enough places in introductory courses for all the students who want to take them. The students, thus deprived and placed on waiting lists for long periods of time, delay their progress through an increasingly expensive education that they are decreasingly able to afford.
And so the terrible inevitable has happened: California is about to pass a law requiring its colleges to accept online courses even from outside, and perhaps commercial, “institutions” for credit in these oversubscribed basics. I fear that students of the future, instead of pondering anaphora, will have to gum down a pelletized processed education, for this trend will not stop at just “introductory” courses that are “too” popular.