Learning how not to read

Learning how not to read January 4, 2015

One of the saving graces of my fundamentalist high school education was our very bad English teacher. Had she been merely somewhat awful she might have proved far more destructive, but she was so superlatively bad — picture Dolores Umbridge without the accent — that most of her students were cornered into a defiant contrariness that thereby led us to explore ideas and to learn a great deal about literature and literacy just to spite her.

Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbridge in “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” and also as my high school English teacher. (Photo via Harry Potter Wiki)

One of her favorite classroom exercises, in particular, helped to liberate me from the fundamentalist ideology she exemplified and taught. This had to do with her idea of the proper way to read and understand poetry. Our assignment was to read a given poem and then to summarize it, in prose, in one or two paragraphs. Strip away all of the florid frills and imagery and boil it down to the essential meaning — the fundamentals, if you will.

In 10th grade I wasn’t yet able to articulate why this bothered me so much, but I bristled at the assignment. I wish that back then I’d have been able to cite MacLeish’s “Ars Poetica” — “A poem should not mean / But be.” But I was 15 years old, and everything our teacher was telling us about reading and understanding poems was perfectly in line with almost everything I had been taught my whole life about, for example, reading and understanding the Bible. So I sat there, dumb as an old medallion, unable to express exactly why it seemed wrong to me to suggest that a poem was just a prettier, less efficient way of communicating the same thing as a single paragraph of propositional prose. I fumbled for some half-remembered, half-understood ideas I had gleaned from, I think, Surprised by Joy, but our teacher dismissed this as she did all questions, as a form of insubordination.

And thus I stumbled into an epiphany of sorts, one which earned me an “F” — an actual zero — for the assignment. The poem we were to vivisect that day was Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” for which I wrote the following prose summary:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

That was, I had realized, the densest possible form for saying all that Frost was saying. It was irreducible. To convey or express everything that Frost was getting across in those 108 words of poetry would require 108,000 words of prose. Maybe more. The meaning wasn’t some lesser, shorter thing to be distilled from Frost’s poem, the meaning was greater, vaster, too unruly and immense to be contained otherwise.

I’m still grateful to this very bad English teacher for that assignment and for the lesson it taught me. She helped me learn how not to read. And not just how not to read poetry, but how not to read parables and prophecies and sermons and stories. As the very worst of my many fundamentalist teachers, in other words, she helped me to unlearn one of the worst things I had been taught by many other less-awful fundie teachers. She helped me to learn how not to read the Bible.



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