When it comes to ‘studied poetry’, we explore the poets’ backgrounds and examine the context in which the poems were written in order to inform our analyses.
I understood that at secondary school. It was expected. Paper II of the Leaving Cert has just one ‘unseen’ question, and of the time we spent on Paper II most of that was, of course, devoted to the studied texts.
While I enjoyed the poetry and other studied texts (though, admittedly, after a while the theme to Cinema Paradiso piqued sighs of irritation and it took a long time to get over that), a problem arose – one which I didn’t immediately understand.
At Junior Cycle I developed a love for poetry. I loved reading poems and creating my own connections to them. The more I read them the more I understood that no two readings were always the same: whatever meaning or associations we create can be dependent on emotions, thoughts, memories, events…
During fifth and sixth year I grew accustomed to reading analyses of poems putting forward the same (or, at the very least, strikingly similar) interpretations – each expressed more verbosely than the last – which relied on information such as context and the poets’ beliefs. These interpretations laid the foundations for a certain reading of the poems which I would then draw upon when addressing an exam question. Although each of us in the class answered the questions differently, more often than not the analyses of specific images and phrases tended to be uniform. In other words, originality in answers came in how we addressed the question rather than how we really responded to and interpreted the poems.
Half-way through sixth year I began to notice that the bridge which connected me to poetry began to fall apart, piece by piece, under these foundations, and I felt as though the enjoyment for poetry I had cultivated at Junior Cycle slowly began to wither.
I felt that my connection to poetry was drifting further and further away, struggling to stay afloat in the waters of the Leaving Cert.
My answers to ‘unseen poetry’ questions became a trite affair, deficient of authenticity. I hadn’t forgotten that poetry could inspire multiple, distinctive readings, but in my new-found dependence on others’ readings and my search for the ‘real’ meaning behind the studied poems I began to doubt my interpretations, second- and third-guessing everything and wondering “which reading would get me more marks?”
In my case, it wasn’t my English teacher’s approaches which led to this, nor was it a lack of help which contributed to it; I wouldn’t have become a teacher if I didn’t have the post-primary education I had, and, among others, my English teacher played a large part in guiding, encouraging and inspiring me.
The problem was I had become so focused on the exam that my relationship with texts – particularly with books, stories and poems I liked to read in my spare time – became strained and the effects of this rippled through my school-work.
It wasn’t until the weeks before the exam that I was once again able to let the text itself guide me.
I returned to the basics to try and salvage my connection to poetry. I re-read my favourite poems to reclaim my appreciation of poetry. I read poems which I hadn’t encountered before. Instead of speculating “which reading…?”, I let the words flourish and not be tamed by exam-focused thinking or scrutinising what it was ‘intended’ to mean.
I created my own meaning.
‘Introduction to Poetry’, by Billy Collins.
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
Source: The Poetry Foundation. Copyright 1988/1996 by Billy Collins. Personal, non-commercial use only.
As a teacher, I’m aware that, at one time or another, in helping students we may unintentionally strain the relationship between student and text.
I think this is partly because there can be a struggle to balance analysis with engagement, and partly because there is a thin line between analysis and over-analysis; analysing something to the point where it is just a chain of techniques creating a single, almost unwavering, reading can threaten to stifle students’ interest in and enjoyment of texts, and, as a result, genuine engagement.
In our efforts to help students reach a level of understanding and appreciation of a text, our intentions can easily be misconstrued; we may, inadvertently, lead ourselves, and them, towards the so-called ‘right’ or ‘expert’ reading and away from the personal experience of finding and using our own voice to explore a text and create meaning.
The important thing is that we dismantle this trap.
We need to acknowledge that what is communicated to the reader is not fixed. Nor, I believe, it is intended to be. Writing this, I’m reminded of how Jennifer Lee, one of the makers of Frozen, responded to some claims about the film:
“We know what we made. But at the same time I feel like once we hand the film over it belongs to the world. So I don’t like to say anything, and let the fans talk. I think it’s up to them.”
[Source: The Big Issue. My emphasis.]
The text is open to interpretation.
It has been handed over to us, the readers, to create meaning – our own unique reading.
If we always knew what every word, image and expression meant, our encounters with ‘the arts’ in all its forms (literature, music, theatre, film…) would be an isolated shadow of an experience deprived of all meaning, and achieving any semblance of originality or true engagement would be impossible.