Poetry and Restraint: Teaching as T’Shuvah

Poetry and Restraint: Teaching as T’Shuvah November 28, 2012

Restraint. A poet’s restraint. A teacher’s.

The penultimate moment of Elizabeth Bishop’s “Filling Station”:

… Somebody
arranges the rows of cans
so that they softly say:
to high-strung automobiles.

As I do with most poems assigned for class, I began our exploration of “Filling Station” by reading the poem aloud. But after that, instead of asking a question or two or however many it takes to get a discussion going, I took my seat, turned the poem over to the students, and told them that I would not guide or interfere with the discussion, at least not until late in the hour.

Restraint. That’s what I had to practice that day. Even when it meant letting a promising comment go undeveloped, maybe even undetected.

Practicing restraint, I listened, on the first of what turned out to be two full periods devoted to “Filling Station,” to their animated discussion.

They wondered about the speaker’s attitude toward the family (father, several “greasy sons”) who, the speaker speculates, lives at the filling station. The students wondered about the mother whose presence is felt, though she herself is never seen, in the surprising domestic details observed there (a set of wickerwork, including a wicker sofa on which lies a “comfy” dog; a “doily/draping a taboret”; a “big . . . begonia”). And the students were curious about the superfluous—or not—arrangement of those oil cans.

About those oil cans. That passage prompted one student, Trish, to tell us about how when she was a chambermaid cleaning a guest’s bathroom she would fold the toilet paper ends down on the back side so that they would meet and create a V-shape on the front. (I’m writing this from my tenth floor room in the Boston Sheraton. When I used the bathroom for the first time, and tugged on the toilet paper, what did I find? The end folded to make a nice V-shape. I’d never noticed before!)

“It’s a kind of finishing gesture,” Trish said. So, she perfectly understood the inclination to arrange those oil cans just so.

Yes! I wanted to scream. Let’s build on that, I wanted to say. I thought of the question Bishop asks earlier in the poem: “Why the extraneous plant” (that “big, hirsute begonia”)?  Someone behind the scenes arranges things just to create small touches of, what, beauty? Are these gestures—folding the end of a roll of toilet paper into a neat shape, arranging oil cans to create a verbal pattern—extraneous?

Restraint, I reminded myself. I remained silent.

Only in the final minute or two of class did I enter the discussion. Then I asked them to consider the possibility of reading Bishop’s “Filling Station” as a poem about art, about arranging details to create patterns, order. Not that it isn’t equally about the incongruity of the domestic life of a gas station. Class over.

Next time we met, I asked the students if they could discern a principle for the poem’s lineation. It took a few minutes, but eventually the students found a number of lines written in fairly regular iambic trimeter. We wrote some lines on the board. We scanned and discussed them, the dynamic, expressive qualities of their rhythms. I’m not sure the students enjoyed this work as much as they did the previous day’s discussion.

With about ten minutes left in the period, I pointed to two words I had written on the board: arranges as in those oil cans, and extraneous, as in, again, that plant. Is attention to the arrangement of sound, in this case stressed and unstressed syllables, extraneous to a poem, to this poem? That’s what I asked.

Every student had to answer yes or no and briefly explain her answer.

A student who had been in one of my classes before, a thoughtful, brilliant student, a student who doesn’t contribute regularly to class discussion because, before she says anything, she wants to be sure she’s formulated the idea in carefully constructed sentences—she wants to arrange her words just so—answered that yes, the metrical features of the poem are extraneous.


Because, she said, we had a rich, meaningful discussion of the poem the previous class—noting social, cultural, economic, and gender implications of the poem—without once noticing its meter.

That’s not the answer I had hoped to hear.

T’shuvah: a Hebrew word that translates imprecisely as repentance. Its three-letter root is related to words that mean turn and return. There is a wholesome, righteous way to live. That’s what Torah teaches. We may intend to live that way, but often we veer from that path.

T’shuvah: turning away from the wrong direction (don’t gossip, don’t ignore the needs of the vulnerable…) and returning to the right direction.

That day in class, I discovered and practiced another form of t’shuvah: restraint.

As I listened to this wonderful student speak what was true for her in her experience of reading this poem at this moment in her development as a reader, I felt disappointed that she didn’t see what I saw, what I knew to be true.

I didn’t want to agree with her. I know how rhythm, cadence, meter—whatever you want to call it—can express precise, nuanced feeling. That’s one thing poems are especially good at: expressing nuanced, complex feelings.

I could have said this to her. I could have argued that one’s awareness of the powerful, expressive role rhythm plays in a poem can be developed over time. But I didn’t.

I listened and reacted—internally, but I did not respond in a way that challenged or invalidated her experience of the poem.

T’shuvah: restraint, contraction of my self to make room for another’s self. Teaching by withholding, practicing t’shuvah.

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