By Stephen Zelnick
Last semester, in an unguarded moment, I did what literature teachers should never do. I told a student her interpretation of a poem was wrong. From that moment I was regarded as an enemy to freedom.
I invited my students to engage with me in online debate on whether an interpretation could be wrong. What follows is their side of the argument. My arguments failed to dent their belief that a poem means whatever a reader thinks.
The debate erupted with Robert Browning's "Fra Lippo Lippi," where Browning, impersonating a Renaissance painter and with much complexity, presents his artist's credo.
My students resolved that complexity by leaping to conclusions. One young woman found the poem disgusting because the wayward monk enjoys a night out with the ladies. For her, this poem was just another male pleasantry purchased at women's expense. That was her personal feeling, and therefore, the class argued, a perfectly acceptable account of Browning's poem.
Another student, who disliked religion, saw Browning's objective to expose the monk's hypocrisy. Religion - he was ecumenical in his contempt - was a lie, and Browning showed how true this was.
I must have been out of my mind when I suggested next class that several interpretations of Christina Rossetti's "No, Thank You, John" were also wrong.
In this poem, a woman rebuffs a presumptuous suitor. Surprisingly, my feminized students rejected this woman's wit and strength, preferring to remind me that women have been universally victimized. As one furious male student reminded me "women were nothing more than cattle with feeling at this point, same as slaves."
Another student discovered the woman was a prostitute since she called the bothersome suitor "John." With some uneasiness the class approved this absurdity since this student really, really believed it.
Online my students insisted "poetry cannot be explained by a single explanation, especially when it comes to feelings." They noted, too, that without a specific letter or diary entry from the author, we could never say conclusively what the author had in mind. Then, too, these poems were written years ago, and we cannot reconstruct how people thought then. In light of these impediments, any interpretation should be acceptable.
I had intruded upon precious, democratic ground where "everyone's views are important. No matter how wrong they seem, if you can show where you are coming from and make your point - it should always be seen as a valuable contribution."
Students protested the damage done by requiring close scrutiny of the poem's setting, words, tones, and devices. After all, "it is disenchanting to think of poetry as a specific point, place, and meaning in time, (very depressing really)." Indeed, as a student schooled in literary theory proposed: "... when reading poetry, it is easier to say it is beautiful because it arouses emotions in which our brains cannot understand."
I was destroying their delight in poetry: "students love poetry because it makes them feel something special. It evokes in them a deeper understanding of themselves. As for myself, I find poetry to be a playground full of ideas and words which are both exciting and mysterious."
One student had been taught that "poems are like dreams. The things that happen in our dreams make perfect sense to us when we are actually dreaming, but when we wake up, we are completely confused and cannot understand how or why certain things happen. In the same way, poems make sense to the authors as they are writing them, but when we read them decades, or even centuries later, we have to try to interpret what their poems meant to the authors at the precise moment they were writing them."
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. It is sadder still that readers must attend to all parts of the poem and not grab hold of something familiar, as they pass in and out of consciousness, and build their case on that. Unhappily, form counts; meditative poems don't use jingling rhymes. Few poems are effusions that flow unimpeded from the poet's heart. Poets work hard revising their creations, as manuscripts demonstrate, even for the most direct-sounding lyrics. Except for Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" few poems pretend to be dream episodes. 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. I tell myself: "Be warned: smile sweetly; learn to say 'how wonderful!'"
But I can't do it.
Stephen Zelnick is an Associate Professor of English at Temple University