Essay

Less Than Certain

How to teach bewildering poems.
Black and white image of Rachel Mennies sitting in a home library.

“What makes a mango fearless?” my student asked. We sat side by side in my shared adjunct office at Carnegie Mellon University, where I taught freshman writing. Between us lay a printout of “Self-Portrait as So Much Potential,” a poem by Chen Chen, scrawled with the student’s ample annotations. “And what makes a tomato friendly?” she asked next, pointing to the poem’s first two lines: “Dreaming of one day being as fearless as a mango. / As friendly as a tomato.” Her penciled question marks punctuated each line.

I responded as I often do when students inquire about a difficult image: “Let’s start in the language. Does the poem give us clues?” We spent the next ten minutes exploring the poem as if it were an undiscovered planet, slowly populating it with themes, symbols, and interpretive evidence. My student’s observations were tentative at first but became more assertive as we talked. The speaker isn’t a mango or a tomato, she noted, but rather a “rusty yawn,” an “arctic attic.” Both tomatoes and mangoes drip juice when ripe, “merciless to chin and shirtfront,” and the speaker “drink[s] so slowly”—a telling contrast. Perhaps, my student suggested, fearlessness and friendliness is in each fruit’s effusions. The speaker’s mother, who has “placed what’s left of her hope on my brothers,” wants her sons to “gulp up the world”; the speaker, “a gay sipper” incapable of gulping, believes his brothers will be “better than mangoes”—“flying mangoes, perhaps.” My student marked this line with both a question mark and an exclamation point.

Before she left the office that day, my student asked a final question. “Why do you think Chen chose tomatoes and mangoes? Could they have been any fruits? Do those choices mean anything?”

I know what my students mean by mean, and I understand why readers tend to seek meaning within absolute constraints. Literature overflows, for example, with laden fruit. One learns early in a Western literary studies curriculum of Eve’s apple and Persephone’s pomegranate, archetypes that invoke an easily retrievable canon of interpretations (the apple represents sin, the pomegranate death). When encountering Chen’s sui generis mango, my student’s first instinct—perhaps instilled in high school, perhaps innate to the practice of close reading—was to determine for certain what it was doing in the poem. If you’re taught that every instance of an apple is an allusion to Genesis 3:5–22, then what exactly must a mango signify?

Later that semester, I found myself sitting in the same office beside a different student, this time bent over Anne Carson’s “Pronoun Envy,” a poem that considers the outcry in 1971 among female students at Harvard about a professor’s insistence on using the pronoun he regardless of people’s gender. That afternoon, we traded Chen’s mangoes and tomatoes for Carson’s zippers and olives:

pronouns themselves were
not to blame. It’s the Indo-
European system of markedness.

A binary system.
Which regards masculine as the
unmarked gender. As if all
the creatures in the world
were either zippers

or olives,
except  
way back in the Indus Valley
in 5000 B.C. we decided
to call them zippers

and non-zippers.

My student said she’d spent all week Googling olives and zippers but couldn’t determine what they meant. I suggested the same path forward: “Let’s see if the poem helps us understand.” We examined the aforementioned stanzas together, with my student guiding us. She noted that the olives transform from one stanza to the next, becoming negated and unmarked in their new “non-zipper” form. We discussed how these images might relate to pronouns and how this symbolic connection imbues both objects with a meaning unique to the poem: the olives can mean only whatever they mean here because of the language-world that Carson builds in the poem. But this student remained bewildered by the existential presence of the olives and the zippers.

“Could Carson have chosen any objects?” she asked, “so long as they were negated?”

We tried a few corollary images—melons and buttons? pimentos and hooks and eyes?—and agreed that our choices lacked the same resonance, even if we couldn’t articulate why. We considered the sonic power of olive and zipper and traced the sound patterns through later stanzas. We discussed olives and zippers as specific symbols. Perhaps an olive is more “feminine” than a zipper? Perhaps folks ate a lot of olives in the Indus Valley? Perhaps a zipper, so often at the crotch, alludes to the dress slacks that male students wore in the early seventies Harvard classroom? Wherever we wandered, we never got past perhaps, and I include myself because I felt just as uncertain as my student.

As I taught this course, a first-year writing class titled “Writing about Literature,” over four semesters, my students’ bewilderment became central to my mission as their teacher. “Read a poem with a dictionary next to you,” I said at the start of each semester. “Look up any names or words you don’t know or understand.” Though this guidance proved essential in answering fact-based questions—as when we read Ross Gay’s “A Small Needful Fact” and a student, after researching Eric Garner, said, “I feel like I just unlocked this poem”—the “look it up” strategy failed to satisfy both my mango student and my olive student. Meeting me for office-hours discussions perhaps bewildered them even further. How should a teacher, positioned so often as the students’ Virgil, a steward of close reading practices in the classroom, teach students how not to understand a poem and to embrace that not everything in a poem can ever be understood, even by its author? I became committed to teaching a “poetics of bewilderment,” to borrow a phrase from Fanny Howe: an ongoing reading practice of bewilderment that engages with poetry’s broader social and aesthetic roles among the written arts.

In her lecture “Bewilderment,” delivered in 1998 as part of the Poetics & Readings series in San Francisco, Howe described bewilderment as a necessary praxis for both the reading and writing of literature. “There is a [M]uslim prayer,” she noted, “that says ‘Lord, increase my bewilderment,’ and this prayer is also mine and the strange Whoever who goes under the name of I in my poems—and under multiple names in my fiction—where error, errancy and bewilderment are the main forces that signal a story.” I love the multiplicity of people, both real and fictional, Howe presented: the writer, the Whoever that masquerades (or doesn’t) as Howe in her poems, and the numerous Whoevers that lurk in her prose, all of them praying for the same thing: make me less certain. Howe created these characters and speakers not to explain her life or illuminate what being alive means but to prove that such understanding perpetually escapes her—and all of us. They’re not meaning but a literary embodiment of the search for meaning. They build the language for a prayer that any one of us might require. After all, as Howe reminded us, “the actual theological meaning of the word salvation is meaning.”

Though Howe lectures on the bewilderment of both fiction and poetry, she concedes that poetry, in particular, conceals or multiplies its meanings in ways that can elude even poets themselves. “Like the disassociated stanzas in poems by Ibn Arabi or Hafiz,” she says, “I see my poems as being composed of queer sentences with lots of space, a dreamlike narrative, and a hidden meaning, so to speak, in that it is hidden from me.” On its face, Howe’s invocation refutes the request that both my students brought to office hours: make me more certain. Many students arrived in my classroom having learned elsewhere that a good poem purposefully hides its meaning from readers. (“Poetry is so cryptic,” a frustrated former student once complained.) Like them, I too pushed against uncertainty as I first learned to read poetry closely, perplexed that my teachers seemed to prize openness over correctness. I didn’t know what to make of them standing at the front of the room, facilitating conversation without ever pronouncing their “verdicts.” In the end, who was right about the olives? Who got closest on the flying mangoes?

“I am forever telling my students I know nothing about poetry,” Mary Ruefle writes in her essay collection Madness, Rack, and Honey (2012), “and they never believe me.” As a student new to poetry, I would have found Ruefle’s assertion both compelling and deeply unhelpful. After all, what could a professor who declares she knows nothing about poetry teach students about poetry? (I imagine none of my students’ mechanical engineering professors would declare, “I know nothing about mechanical engineering.”) As an educator and a poet, however, I find Ruefle’s words sanctioning. In my office, my students wanted me to answer their questions absolutely: “The non-zipper represents x. The tomato signifies y.” I couldn’t. Instead, we worked together to inhabit the paradox intrinsic to literary interpretation: we began in certainty (reading the words and attaching them to meanings), but we ended in uncertainty, which meant we stood on different paths at the conclusion of our journey.

When my student asked, “Why do you think Chen chose tomatoes and mangoes? Do those foods mean anything?” I responded, “I don’t know.” “What makes you a suitable authority to teach me a poem, then?” this student might have asked, and it’s a fair question. To attempt an answer, I return to Ruefle, who quotes her friend responding to this epistemology of doubt: “The difference between myself and a student is that I am better at not knowing what I am doing.” One reason I am better than my students at “not knowing what I’m doing” is that I’m a poet myself. A creative writing course in high school, not a literature course, ultimately shifted my thinking away from empiricism and toward bewilderment. It took trying to write a poem seriously, in a classroom with a teacher who took the work seriously, for me to understand a poem’s expansive possibilities. When I write today, I regularly join the practice of Howe’s “queer composition.” I remain mystified by the generative process of creating a poem even as I undertake it, a puzzle that lives in the poem long after I’ve finished it. Authorship, as Howe tells us, doesn’t mean ownership; it also doesn’t confer on me more (or any) certainty about a poem just because I created it.

To wit: last year, I gave a reading and a lesson at a preparatory high school in Connecticut. The students had read selections of my book and prepared questions in advance of my visit. One of the poems under discussion concerns “The Amidah," a foundational Jewish prayer that opens with an invocation of praise for (traditionally) the religion’s patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The student asked why I was interested in that particular prayer, and I gave a multi-part answer that wasn’t technically incorrect. I’d recited the prayer, often automatically, hundreds of times as a child; I loved the lilt of the Hebrew even as the prayer’s patriarchal sentiment made me increasingly uncomfortable as a teenager; my book focused on my Jewish upbringing, and “The Amidah” is a Jewish prayer. But, like Howe, I “remained as uncertain in the end as [I was] in the beginning” about my true authorial intentions, even after moving onto the next student’s question.

I’d begun writing the poem in 2011 as a sort of erasure, moving lines from the prayer around until their new grammar excited me. Before that, I awoke one morning, years past my last Shabbat service, to “hear” the prayer cycling in my mind. Who put it there? And how did I “vision,” once I began to write the poem, a connection between this men-praising prayer and my early, fraught sexual experiences with men? The mystery remains, even though the finished draft eventually made some version of sense—and that poem’s “sense of sense” still shifts for me over time, as I and the world around me change. I carry the poetics of bewilderment into my teaching because no poetry begins without it, and no poetry survives without it. Nor can readers, exploring a poem’s wilderness, survive in the metaphorical wild without it.

Here’s what teaching a poetics of bewilderment looked like in my classroom: I encouraged text-based speculation as my students read. Our shared foundation for a poem came from in-class discussion geared toward understanding a poem’s facts (and “agreeing” as much as is possible) before we engaged in individual interpretation. These facts usually included designations of prosody. What is the poem’s form? In how many stanzas? How does the poet use rhyme, meter, sound, repetition? Of narrative, I asked, who is the speaker? Whom does the speaker address? Who and/or what else appears in the poem by way of image, allusion, or declaration? Once students felt comfortable mapping a poem’s terrain, I felt confident they could wander around in it, and the more time they spent wandering, the better equipped they became to trust their sense of the meaning of their encounters.

Let me return to the mango. Seen outside the world of Chen’s poem, a “flying mango” might remain a perpetual absurdity to readers, a funny-strange cartoon animalization of fruit. In Chen’s poem, however, in which mangoes and tomatoes embody the socially acceptable self to which the speaker might aspire, the flying mango becomes (in one reading) a flawed human goal: live up to another’s corrupt standard, make someone else happy at your own expense. The first time I read “Self-Portrait,” I thought of someone I’d disappointed, someone I could never please because of who I am. When I watched my student puzzling over the poem, I wondered if she saw herself in those lines or if she’d traveled somewhere else entirely.

Does a poetics of bewilderment imply that a poem can mean anything? Students have asked me versions of this question over the years, and my short answer, admittedly maddening, is “to whom?” Certainly, close readers can interpret aspects of a poem incorrectly, whether misidentifying a form, overlooking a well-honed reference, or conflating poet and speaker (a complicated issue). A bear in a poem must remain a bear unless readers find enough textual evidence to argue that the bear is, in fact, a fish. As a teacher, I’m more interested in the conversation and debate that arise once students have honed their close-reading skills—once the “facts” of a poem have been disinterred and discussed—than I am coaching them toward an interpretive consensus. This conversation, after all, drives the critical apparatus around poetry. If literary critics and theorists don’t strive for a singular correctness, or consensus, in their labor, why should a classroom of budding poem interpreters? A poetics of bewilderment honors debate; it also prepares students to stake their claim to participate fully in a conversation about anything, not solely a conversation about literature, that requires skepticism, doubt, or critical thinking. Perhaps a poem can mean nearly anything then. Or perhaps readers can’t exhaust a poem’s meanings, because poems exist both inside and outside of time, created in a historical moment but outliving their writers and readers.

The poet Emilia Phillips, writing on Howe’s poetics of bewilderment for Ploughshares, calls a poem “a moor over which one wanders lost but not without one’s senses, fully present, looking and seeing everything in all its strangeness.” She goes on to cite the poet Kaveh Akbar, who told LitHub, “I really do sincerely feel that bewilderment is at the core of every great poem, and in order to be bewildered, you have to be able to wonder. You absolutely have to be permeable to wonder.” Part of my students’ initial inherent pull away from wonder and toward certainty, the opposite of what Akbar counsels, might come from an empiric, test-saturated educational culture and the concomitant desire to “perform well” in front of one’s teacher—a deep-seated anxiety at Carnegie Mellon in particular, home to some of America’s highest-achieving students.

Though I’ve never taught high school English, where most of my students’ exam-driven assessments in literature took place, my students often described the ways they were taught to read to prepare for SAT or Advanced Placement tests on poetry, which skewed toward a “the non-zipper represents x” model. Interrogating this approach with students occasionally triggered concern and confusion. Some students, especially those who believed a poem’s close reading should end at its agreed upon “facts,” refused to budge an inch. For those students, discussing diverse modes of literary interpretation proved helpful because it asked them to articulate their preferred interpretive traditions. Students who leaned more toward a New Critical mode, for example, found a poetics of bewilderment (which I’d argue has more in common with a reader-response approach) untenable. Contextualizing reading preferences by critical school was helpful for both me and my students as the semester proceeded; it urged us to consider an established rationale for why we might disagree.

My students’ hesitation to wander away from certainty also constitutes an innate and understandable self-protection. A reading practice predicated on wandering required my students to traverse intimate, emotional aspects of themselves, possibly in front of me and their classmates: to be “permeable,” as Akbar says, in full view of others. That’s a difficult request to make of anyone, let alone a college student simply trying to pass a class. I love what Phillips offers toward the end of her essay as a possible antidote to this risk: confer to students “a surrender that maintains agency” as they learn to remain strategically bewildered by a poem. If I ask them to walk in the wilderness, I must first give them the pedagogical skills necessary to make that journey. Then I must be willing to meet them on their individual paths.

To engage students’ vulnerability with care over the semester as essay deadlines loomed, I reminded them that they weren’t alone in their bewilderment. We discussed the contexts in which popular American culture seems to especially value poetry, which speaks to our collective need to experience wonder together. For example, as the designated poet among my “non-poetry” groups of friends, I’ve been asked many times to either select or to write (the greatest honor) a poem to read at a wedding or a funeral. My friends request these poems for the same reason that poems pass more fervently than prose between lovers and for the same reason so many invocations to God, in whatever religion, often take the shape of poems. When we find life bewildering—when we fall in or out of love or mourn or tangle with any notion of God—we seek to know how others have been bewildered too. The poem becomes a site for this awe. If poetry, foremost among the written arts, fosters this bewildering power, then teaching students that they’re not reading poetry alone helps them engage directly, and vulnerably, with the ineffable.

Over the course of four semesters, the question at the heart of my pedagogy changed. Instead of asking students “What does the olive mean?” I learned to ask them “What does it help you understand?” When new insights, borne of this question, arrived at my students’ desks, I could sense that in the energy of their analytical prose and in the way their hands quivered when a realization passed through them in class. It was like watching them peel, then taste, then devour a new fruit whole.

Originally Published: September 3rd, 2018

Rachel Mennies is the author of The Glad Hand of God Points Backwards, winner of the 2014 Walt McDonald First-Book Prize in Poetry and a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award. She lives in Chicago and is a member of AGNI’s editorial staff.