"Poetry and education", or, "How I made a fool of myself for an entire semester"
Once upon a time, when I was in college, I took a course entitled "Oral Interpretation of Poetry." This was a requirement for English majors such as myself, but--if only I'd known what this meant!--it was also a required course for Speech majors. The semester I was enrolled, there was only one other English major in the class (and I think he was a speech minor!). The remainder of the class were Speech majors--you know, the ones who would have the leads in the all the school plays for the entire time I was student. Those kinds of people. Outgoing people with Stage Presence and the ability to Project.
The class was conducted quite simply. We all had to memorize and recite (perform) our poems in front of the class. All class time was taken up with this kind of activity--practices with copies of the poem, memory checks, and final performances. When we were not reciting, of course, we were the audience. We were entitled to choose our own poems, but I don't recall having any kind of input or suggestions on the topic. That was fine with me--I was a poetry-enthusiastic English major, and I was happy to choose my own poems. I was also an idiot, but I had not yet learned that.
The first poem I chose was "Song" by John Donne. You know, the one that goes
GO and catch a falling star,
Get with child a mandrake root,
Tell me where all past years are,
Or who cleft the devil's foot,
Teach me to hear mermaids singing,
Or to keep off envy's stinging,
Serves to advance an honest mind.
If thou be'st born to strange sights,
Things invisible to see,
Ride ten thousand days and nights,
Till age snow white hairs on thee,
Thou, when thou return'st, wilt tell me,
All strange wonders that befell thee,
Lives a woman true and fair.
If thou find'st one, let me know,
Such a pilgrimage were sweet;
Yet do not, I would not go,
Though at next door we might meet,
Though she were true, when you met her,
And last, till you write your letter,
False, ere I come, to two, or three.
I hope didn't you lose your composure, imagining me standing in front a small class at a Christian college and reciting that. Everyone else, of course, selected narrative, story-telling poems that were far more appropriate for "oral interpretation" than the Song. If I recall accurately, I received a "D" for that performance, and that was probably a generous grade, based upon the fact that I recited the correct words in the correct order from memory. I thought I'd learn from my mistake and choose a more narrative poem for my next turn. Robert Browning wrote narrative poetry, right? And I found one that was all about a book--how fun. And thus, still wallowing in my stupidity, I "performed" a poem with the glorious title "Sibrandus Schafnaburgensis."
Plague take all your pedants, say I!
He who wrote what I hold in my hand,
Centuries back was so good as to die,
Leaving this rubbish to cumber the land;
This, that was a book in its time,
Printed on paper and bound in leather,
Last month in the white of a matin-prime
Just when the birds sang all together.
Into the garden I brought it to read,
And under the arbute and laurustine
Read it, so help me grace in my need,
From title-page to closing line.
Chapter on chapter did I count,
As a curious traveller counts Stonehenge;
Added up the mortal amount;
And then proceeded to my revenge.
Yonder’s a plum-tree with a crevice
An owl would build in, were he but sage;
For a lap of moss, like a fine pont-levis
In a castle of the Middle Age,
Joins to a lip of gum, pure amber;
When he’d be private, there might he spend
Hours alone in his lady’s chamber:
Into this crevice I dropped our friend.
Splash, went he, as under he ducked,
—At the bottom, I knew, rain-drippings stagnate;
Next, a handful of blossoms I plucked
To bury him with, my bookshelf’s magnate;
Then I went in-doors, brought out a loaf,
Half a cheese, and a bottle of Chablis;
Lay on the grass and forgot the oaf
Over a jolly chapter of Rabelais.
Now, this morning, betwixt the moss
And gum that locked our friend in limbo,
A spider had spun his web across,
And sat in the midst with arms akimbo:
So, I took pity, for learning’s sake,
And, de profundis, accentibus lætis,
Cantate! quoth I, as I got a rake;
And up I fished his delectable treatise.
Here you have it, dry in the sun,
With all the binding all of a blister,
And great blue spots where the ink has run,
And reddish streaks that wink and glister
O’er the page so beautifully yellow—
Oh, well have the droppings played their tricks!
Did he guess how toadstools grow, this fellow?
Here’s one stuck in his chapter six!
How did he like it when the live creatures
Tickled and toused and browsed him all over,
And worm, slug, eft, with serious features,
Came in, each one, for his right of trover;
When the water-beetle with great blind deaf face
Made of her eggs the stately deposit,
And the newt borrowed just so much of the preface
As tiled in the top of his black wife’s closet?
All that life and fun and romping,
All that frisking and twisting and coupling,
While slowly our poor friend’s leaves were swamping
And clasps were cracking and covers suppling!
As if you had carried sour John Knox
To the play-house at Paris, Vienna or Munich,
Fastened him into a front-row box,
And danced off the Ballet with trousers and tunic.
Come, old Martyr! What, torment enough is it?
Back to my room shall you take your sweet self.
Good-bye, mother-beetle; husband-eft, sufficit!
See the snug niche I have made on my shelf!
A.’s book shall prop you up, B.’s shall cover you,
Here’s C. to be grave with, or D. to be gay,
And with E. on each side, and F. right over you,
Dry-rot at ease till the Judgment-day!
Now, that's funny enough in its own way, but not exactly good oral fair. The whole semester went on like this, while I tried to imitate my speech-major-classmates' dramatic performances. Sometimes I pulled off a "C," but as often as not, I continued to receive the "D's" when it was my turn to perform. We had to turn in a written analysis for each poem, and I always received these back with "A's" and glowing comments, but that didn't happen in front of the class, you know?
For the final project, we had to select a single poet and recite several poems. And I chose...you'd think I would have learned something by this time, but noooo...I chose Matthew Arnold. I recited Dover Beach and The Buried Life, and something else I don't remember. It was torture to me, and I'm sure, to all my listeners. When my uneven performance and analysis grades were tallied up, I received a B, I think. Or a C. I can't remember after all these years, except that I passed and didn't have to go through it all again.
Kudos to anyone who read all through those poems. There is nothing wrong with them if you don't try to "perform" them in front of a bunch of leading-role speech majors. Now, here's what I finally figured out, after all these years. I should have mined the pages of Anne of Green Gables or Little House on the Prairie and recited the things that Anne and Laura recited. Too bad I didn't figure that out 22 years ago.