Mr. Keating enters the room and, in a no-nonsense fashion, requests a student to read from the distinguished introduction of the class text on poetry. The room is silent but for a few rustling sounds as the boy reads, outlining a technique for evaluating poetry through graphical analysis of the poem’s application of devices and its “importance.” Keating waits until the student finishes, then softly says, “Excrement. That’s what I think of Mr. J. Evans Pritchard. Now, I want you to rip out that page. Go on. Rip it out. Rip it out! RIP!”
The students sit still, in disbelief, then eventually start to rip out the beginnings of their textbooks. Keating delightedly grabs the wastebasket, all the while shouting “RIP!” and “BEGONE Dr. J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D!” Keating proclaims that poetry is not about quantitative data, but about thinking and feeling for oneself. After all the students have ripped the pages, Keating beckons them to huddle around him. In the middle, he kneels and says:
“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, “O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?” Answer: that you are here. That life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”
Keating’s character is one of my heroes, but that’s not the only reason I showed this clip to my class. I showed this five-minute clip from Dead Poet’s Society (Peter Weir, 1989) to spark discussion on two ways to view poetry: (1) as a demonstration of a mastery of form and (2) as a vehicle to portray the human experience. Structuralism vs. Reader Response. Logic vs. Emotion.
So, I asked my class what they thought about this clip. Who did they agree with–the book or the teacher? I got a wide variety of responses. Many students agreed with Keating, expressing a desire to “speak from the heart,” to “throw out the rules and focus on what we feel,” and to “make poetry our own.” This group was excited about the chance to express themselves and to use poetry to get across what they felt was important. Other students opted to agree with the textbook view, feeling a security and accountability that results from the perfect execution of form and the knowledge of patterns of rhyme and rhythm, because that’s “what poetry really is.” That’s “how you write poetry and what makes it different from other writing.”
This discussion got to the bottom of what I really wanted to say over the course of this unit, which I shared with them as the discussion wrapped up: “Even literary scholars today are having this same debate. Some people say that poetry is about devices and terms and patterns and how you use them. To these people, a poem’s perfection comes from their mastery of these things. But others are more focused on what a poem makes us feel. To these people, poetry is about life, and feeling, and love, and passion. It’s about where we are in this human experience we all share, and why it matters. And it’s ok to feel either of these ways, or even both. That’s what we’ve been doing in this unit all along–we’ve looked at standard poetry devices and figured out what they are and how they work. We saw examples from famous poets. But then, we experimented with these devices in our own words and used them to tell our own emotions and stories. We wrote some of our own verses. And that’s something I hope you guys came away with: that studying poetry is really about both of these things…”
At this point, I had to quell my fervor. My supervisor was in the room and I had a review game to get rolling. My students performed beautifully, too–I hardly had a single wrong answer during the review, and later in the week test scores would prove to be very decent overall. I also had them submit a revised poem as part of their assessment grade, and many of them blew me away with the creativity, spirit, and truth that they weaved into their poetry. Especially since their classrooms have been very regimented and worksheet-heavy up until now, their achievements were spectacular to me. My students represent so many races, languages, cultures, economic backgrounds, and personalities–they each have amazing stories to tell. And their form wasn’t bad, either.
I can’t believe this unit is already over.
I’m very proud of my classes, and I can’t wait to see what else they can do. I hope Mr. Keating would be proud, too.
(Nothing says “English teacher” like being so attached to a fictional character!)