Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Daring to Disturb the Universe

I was pleased to open my March issue of English Journal to find Paul Sahre’s stark and striking poster promoting National Poetry Month. (Language Arts and Voices from the Middle subscribers have the poster as well.)

Written in all caps, neatly, but with an occasional slant that suggests potential instability beneath the surface, is this profound question from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T. S. Eliot: “Do I dare disturb the universe?”

Did I mention that the words are traced on a rain-soaked window pane? Or is that a steamed shower door? The combination of text and image is as richly evocative as the poem and speaker to which the poster refers.

“Prufrock” is a poem with special significance to me. Unlike the general English teacher populace, I was indifferent toward literature and reading in high school. But the day we turned the page in our anthology to Eliot’s lengthy poem, and the speaker invited me into the text with “Let us go then, you and I, / When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table,” I read and listened with rapt attention.

We didn’t spend much time with the poem—probably just a class period—but I still remember my first exposure to the images of cat-like smoke and ragged claws; the tense playfulness of rhymes such as “afternoons” and “coffee spoons” or “ices” and “crisis;” the dilemma of the speaker that was well beyond my adolescent understanding.

I think of that day as a gift of sorts.

So, it seems, did one of my students on the day I first shared “Prufrock” with a classroom of my own. I used it to start a poetry unit, inviting students to make observations and ask questions as I read the text aloud. I didn’t say anything about my prior experiences with the poem or my personal purpose in selecting it.

The conversation was rich, and we spent the hour making a first pass at a text we would return to throughout the unit. As the class filed out the door at the end of the period, a student stopped to thank me for sharing “Prufrock” with him.

I was shocked, not only because a student was thanking me for what just happened in class, but also because he was having the same reaction to the poem I had felt ten or so years before.

At the end of that school year, a different student sent me a note of thanks for our time together in the course. “I came into this class thinking that talking about books and poems was going to be a waste of my time,” she wrote. “I’m grateful that ‘In a minute there is time / For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.’”

Not every poem will have that kind of resonance with our students, and not all students will express their gratitude in such an articulate way. But what a heartening reminder that we get the chance to disturb so many universes when we share great literature with our students.


dshuey said...

I, too, loved this poem in high school. It opened a lot of doors. As I struggle to teach English in a foreign setting (middle school in Switzerland) your article reminded me that there are highlights both behind and ahead of me. We can't reach every single student, but when we really reach even one...ah, then we are hearing the mermaids singing indeed!

Anonymous said...

I never understood the poem. I did not read it until I took literary analysis as an undergrad in college. I always remembered two phrases, however. "The women come and go, talking of Michaelangelo," and "Let us go then, you and I,when the evening is spread out against the sky
like a patient etherised upon a table." I suppose I was one of those students "we can't reach."
Perhaps I will read it again now that I have read Scott's blog. It certainly is available:

Nan said...

While it's great when we have our own "aha" moments about things, it's even more special when students have that reaction. I am so glad your student stopped to thank you - that is even more rewarding

Straz said...

Loved your blog! Sometimes high school teachers shy away from poems that are considered "difficult" to teach. But, how sad to neglect a work because you may have to explain or research some allusions. I think "Prufrock" speaks to many students who welcome the challenge of a text rich in imagery and ambiguity.

Tiki said...

My students love disturbing the universe! Sometimes poetry really resonates with them. Almost all of them have enjoyed writing it.

Michelle said...

Hi, I was wondering what grades you all teach. Do you think this kind of poetry could be introduced at an earlier age? Eliot's writing is pretty profound, but I don't think that there's any reason why this poet or others like him couldn't be included in earlier curriculum. If we make this kind of genre more accessible sooner, maybe students won't shudder at the thought of having to read and dissect in high school.

Kelley said...

This poster and the quote also make a great tie-in to our Term 4 reading of "The Chocolate War" by Robert Cormier, in which one of the characters has this quote on a poster in his locker and it reflects a major theme of the novel. I always talk to my students about connections between various sources (in this case, a poem and a novel) and to have a concrete example really helps some of them finally 'get it!'

Anonymous said...

Directly related to Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War... I just finished teaching that novel to my 9th graders.