Poetry Goes Back to School
Curtis Fox: This is Poetry Off The Shelf from The Poetry Foundation, September 4th 2013. I’m Curtis Fox. This week, poetry goes back to school. It’s a cliche but it’s true; a lot of us learn to dislike poetry in high school. Poems tend to be analyzed like frogs and chloroform, and we end up worrying about technical things like iambic pentameter and assonance. But with the right teacher, poems can get inside us and do their mysterious work among our tangled thoughts and feelings. James Langlas is a poet who taught high school English for 33 years, mostly at Wheaton High School in Wheaton, Illinois. Now he’s on the English faculty at Edison State College in Naples, Florida. Jim, one of your students recommended you when I asked if he knew of a high school teacher who taught poetry well. Can you give us a sense of how you approached poetry in the classroom?
James Langlas: It took me a long time Curtis to figure out how to do it. When I first started as a young teacher, it was a thing where okay, here’s the book, let’s read a poem and let’s find the metaphors in it. These are all metaphors, so forth and so on. It was just dead for the students. Finally, I realized in order to reach the students we had to have them have some fun in it. Then it was more of a, let’s read this and what do you guys notice in this poem? See if they can talk about it.
Curtis Fox: You told me when we talked earlier on the phone that even if it wasn’t a poetry class, you’d often begin an English class by reading a poem. Tell me how that worked.
James Langlas: Yes, and I still do it here at the college. At the high school, I’d walk into class and say hey guys, how’s it going, here’s a poem for us, let’s listen to it. If we didn’t listen to it, I’d hand it out, I’d bring it up on the screen. It’s just a matter of letting them experience the language before we get going in the other stuff of the class.
Curtis Fox: You’d often read it. It wouldn’t just be handing it out to be read by the students, you yourself would often read it. I think that’s kind of key to getting people to understand how a poem might be experienced.
James Langlas: Absolutely. I had a student one time who said to me years later, I still hear your voice. I think that was in a good way, that I didn’t haunt this person in her sleep (LAUGHING).
Curtis Fox: I think it’s also seeing someone take pleasure in something, and communicate that pleasure in the way that they read it is unusual. I think that had to communicate itself in the classroom, right?
James Langlas: I think the passion for the word and how it sounds and what it looks like, how we experience it, I think that carries over with students. That’s a good way to keep it alive, because we found a way over time in schools to kill it. I’ve often asked students how many of you don’t like poetry? So many of them raise their hands. I say, who killed it for you, and where did it happen?
Curtis Fox: And what do they say when you ask them that?
James Langlas: Usually that word analyze comes up. When we had to analyze this poem … Then it just became an academic exercise rather than an experience. There’s something to be said for that, but I think especially for young people we have to keep it alive, keep it violent.
Curtis Fox: So I asked you to pick out a poem from our website to read, and you chose “Out, Out” by Robert Frost”. Why did you pick this one?
James Langlas: Over the years, I’ve found that this poem frightens people. I’d often times start the class, I’d say something like how many of you people have ever been around a chainsaw? I almost cut my leg off with one, how about you? They’ll say yeah, you have to be careful. It was always fun to talk about the significance of the title and that great line from MacBeth, “Out, out, brief candle”.
Curtis Fox: I was going to ask you about that after we’d read the poem. That was MacBeth ruminating on the shortness of life. So it’s set in Vermont, someone is cutting up wood for the stove, not with a chainsaw but in the chainsaw of it’s time; a gas powered hand held buzz saw, which is a ferocious looking circular saw. Why don’t you give this one a read? Here’s “Out, Out” by Robert Frost.
The buzz saw snarled and rattled in the yard
And made dust and dropped stove-length sticks of wood,
Sweet-scented stuff when the breeze drew across it.
And from there those that lifted eyes could count
Five mountain ranges one behind the other
Under the sunset far into Vermont.
And the saw snarled and rattled, snarled and rattled,
As it ran light, or had to bear a load.
And nothing happened: day was all but done.
Call it a day, I wish they might have said
To please the boy by giving him the half hour
That a boy counts so much when saved from work.
His sister stood beside him in her apron
To tell them ‘Supper.’ At the word, the saw,
As if to prove saws knew what supper meant,
Leaped out at the boy’s hand, or seemed to leap—
He must have given the hand. However it was,
Neither refused the meeting. But the hand!
The boy’s first outcry was a rueful laugh,
As he swung toward them holding up the hand
Half in appeal, but half as if to keep
The life from spilling. Then the boy saw all—
Since he was old enough to know, big boy
Doing a man’s work, though a child at heart—
He saw all spoiled. ‘Don’t let him cut my hand off—
The doctor, when he comes. Don’t let him, sister!’
So. But the hand was gone already.
The doctor put him in the dark of ether.
He lay and puffed his lips out with his breath.
And then—the watcher at his pulse took fright.
No one believed. They listened at his heart.
Little—less—nothing!—and that ended it.
No more to build on there. And they, since they
Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.
Curtis Fox: That was “Out, Out” by Robert Frost. Every time I read this poem, I’m horrified by what happens even though I know it’s coming. I can imagine your students hearing it for the first time being likewise horrified. So what do you do, you’ve read the poem and then what happens in your class?
James Langlas: First of all, I always find it intriguing to look at their faces. Basically, we’ll just have a moment of silence until someone says “Oh my gosh”, or something like that arises from the room, or you see somebody’s contorted look. Then I’ll usually pick up a key like that, I’ll say to the student “So what did you think?” Usually that will elicit a sense of horror, then I’ll say “Where do you feel the most horror in this?” So often they’ll say the ending where this boy’s life seems to be discounted.
Curtis Fox: My horror comes from when it first happens and the boy holds his hand in his own hand. It’s not a surreal poem, but it’s what people often describe as surreal when something terrible happens. That’s just an unbelievable detail in the poem, so unbelievable it must be true.
James Langlas: It’s interesting you say that, because I’ve found myself at that point as I’m reading the poem grabbing my own arm and holding it up, half in appeal but half as if to keep the blood from spilling, like the hand elevate the hand up. I agree, that’s a horrible and lasting image.
Curtis Fox: The scene he draws early in the poem is truly masterful. “The buzz saw snarled and rattled in the yard / And made dust and dropped stove-length sticks of wood, / Sweet-scented stuff when the breeze drew across it.” You can just smell the wood. "And from there those that lifted eyes could count / Five mountain ranges one behind the other / Under the sunset far into Vermont.” It’s very cinematic I have to say.
James Langlas: Yeah, I love that. It’s very sensual, isn’t it? With the sweet scented stuff and the eyes? I think this whole thing with the repetition of snarled and rattled is always such a great sound in the poem. It leads us to talk about onomatopoeia and other things if they want to talk about it. This whole personification of saw, as if saws knew what supper meant. That whole thing, it leads us to other discussions of this beast that just wants to consume children.
Curtis Fox: Frost is a master of blank verse. Do you ever bring that up? Or is that just something you stay away from?
James Langlas: I usually stay away from something as formal for a discussion for it. But I will often say, “How does this poem move? Do you notice anything in the tempo of it, the rhythm?” So we’ll talk about that, but at that point I’m kind of judging the students, how engaged they are (LAUGHING).
Curtis Fox: That can kill a lively discussion in many ways, so we’re going to skip right on by that and go to the next part of the poem where it reads “Call it a day, I wish they might have said / To please the boy by giving him the half hour / That a boy counts so much when saved from work.” I would point out a flaw in the poem in this line. “That a boy counts so much when saved from work”. If I were teaching this, I would say “That a boy counts on so much when saved from work”. Which of course would ruin the blank verse of that particular line. Kind of interesting to point out that a poet can make a mistake. I don’t know if it was a mistake, it could be a colloquialism in Frost’s day. But it sounds to me a little bit like an awkwardness in the verse.
James Langlas: That’s a difficult part to navigate when we read it out loud. I tend to agree with you there, it’s a bumpy spot.
Curtis Fox: Another bumpy spot, and this could have to do with me not being familiar with the type of buzz saw that this boy was using, but the poem doesn’t give a clear picture of how the boy cut off his hand. Physically, what happened? How did he loose control of the saw? I know that it leapt up, but generally with those kind of saws you’re holding them with both hands, so how did it leap off and cut off one hand, right at the wrist apparently? It’s kind of smudged by Frost.
James Langlas: Well put, I don’t have a clear picture of it. I guess it’s one of the things I glossed over in my mind. I don’t get the picture, as much as I see this saw strangely, I guess the image I get, as kind of airborne, jumping out. But I don't know how that would operate.
Curtis Fox: I don’t have an image in my head yet, but I don’t really need one. Something bad happened. And then the boy’s first outcry is a “rueful laugh”, that is bizarre.
James Langlas: I remember that particular phrase, I can remember at times talking about that. I’d say, what does that sound like? What does a rueful laugh sound like? Is it “ha” or “ah”, what is it?
Curtis Fox: And then the boy realizes what happened. “Then the boy saw all— / Since he was old enough to know, big boy / Doing a man’s work, though a child at heart— / He saw all spoiled. ‘Don’t let him cut my hand off— / The doctor, when he comes. Don’t let him, sister!’/ So. But the hand was gone already.” What do you make of that “so”? “So. But the hand was already gone”. What does that “so” actually mean?
James Langlas: I don’t know. To me, it’s sort of this matter of fact, it almost in some ways is a preparation for this matter of fact kind of ending of life going on. But I don’t know, I don’t know if that’s the way you see it or not.
Curtis Fox: It just stops the poem cold, as if those are the facts and this is the rest of what’s happened. And then the poem ends “No more to build on there. And they, since they / Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.” “No more to build on there”, that phrase really sticks out. What do you make of that?
James Langlas: That’s an interesting one. It’s somewhat dehumanizing, isn’t it? Is this all the relationship in the family or these people is, is work?
Curtis Fox: The boy seems to be valued only as a worker and what he could bring to the family. “And they, since they / Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.” One thing I’m not really clear on is, is it a family setting where the boy is doing work for the family? Or is it a work camp, and his sister happens to be there? I’m not clear, are you?
James Langlas: It could be a work camp, I’ve always assumed it was more of a family because it’s the sister to come out and tell him supper.
Curtis Fox: That’s the assumption I think most people make when they read this poem, because if there is a sister there the rest of the family is probably there as well. But what it applies then is that they’re really impoverished, they see his loss in economic terms before they see his loss as a human being. That’s got to be hard to explain to high school students.
James Langlas: Yeah, because obviously for a lot of high school students growing up nowadays, how many of families work together for their sustenance and things like that? It’s kind of a disconnect I think for the students.
Curtis Fox: So you read this and get a reaction out of your students, then what happens? What do you do? Do you go back to this poem later in the semester, later in the year? Do you just leave it there?
James Langlas: I guess I use my guts to tell me, do we have to let this go now? Are there other ways that we can slide in some of the intricacies with poetry without in their eyes damaging the poem?
Curtis Fox: But it’s fun to talk about poems that you like, because there are things that are unexplained and there may be some slight flaws in the poem. That is fun to talk about.
James Langlas: Another thing is I will often to say to them, guys, I’m always confused by this part. What do you make of it? I’ll show how a poem is still mysterious to me and have them respond. I think that does put them at ease because then they know this isn’t a formula. I think they enjoy seeing that in a teacher who will say the poem is still a mystery to me, or I’ve never quite been able to handle this. That sort of transparency I think is really important for building a climate in a classroom that values poetry and allows students to take risks with it.
Curtis Fox: Jim, thanks so much.
James Langlas: Thanks Curtis.
Curtis Fox: James Langlas taught high school for 33 years and is currently teaching at Edison State College in Naples Florida. The Robert Frost poem as well as dozens he wrote is up on our website. Let us know what you think of this program, email us at [email protected]. The theme music for this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. For Poetry Off The Shelf, I’m Curtis Fox. Thanks for listening.