“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes—and ships—and sealing-wax—
Of cabbages—and kings—
And why the sea is boiling hot—
And whether pigs have wings.”
—Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass
OK, so I buy my ticket, put on my 3-D glasses, settle into my seat to watch Alice in Wonderland. And, ever the nerd, I’m thinking to myself at last the kids in the audience would be exposed to poetry.
Because as far as I could tell from my daughters’ public school education, teaching poetry to middle and high school students is just not done.
That’s not quite right, though. Because in their Latin and French classes they actually read some poetry. Just not in English class.
Of course, there’s Poetry Outloud, the National Education Association initiative created to involve students in memorizing and performing poems they’ve chosen. And the Poetry Outloud Web site offers a great selection of poems for students to choose from by English-speaking authors from all ages and cultures.
But here’s the thing: if the kids aren’t taught how to both read and hear poetry, it doesn’t matter if they pick a poem, memorize it and speak it out loud.
My daughter chose “Life,” by Edith Wharton, when she did Poetry Outloud. “Life” is a difficult poem, a sonnet with an extended metaphor and a complicated rhyme scheme. It’s got references to an ancient Greek poetess, an early Greek calendar inscribed in marble and the Gospel of John. Since all the students chose different poems, the teacher couldn’t possibly have worked with each of them to understand their poems and how to translate what they were reading to an aural experience.
What rappers, slam poets, good songwriters and good English teachers know is that poetry is an aural experience. The exuberance, musicality and emotional content of it is what makes their words exuberant, musical, emotional.
Case in point: I was trying to find a Lupe Fiasco song to quote and texted my daughter. She texted back: “My favorite is ‘Sunshine.’ Look up the lyrics, but Youtube it, too. . . . Definitely worth a look and a listen.”
But the same thing is true for poetry—definitely worth a look and a listen. It doesn’t mean much on the page. It has to be spoken aloud. It has to hang in the air the way music does.
I remember hearing a college profes-sor read Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess.”
I’d had to read the poem for homework. I didn’t think too much of it or get too much of it. It had words like “durst” and “forsooth” in it. It referenced somebody named Fra Pandolf and somebody else named Claus of Innsbruck.
And sure, maybe I looked up who they were, but probably not, since we didn’t have the Internet then.
Our professor explained that “My Last Duchess” was a monologue spoken by the Duke of Ferrara to a male guest about a painting of his late wife. And then he began to read in this evil and smarmy voice, “That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall/Looking as if she were alive.”
And as the poem unfolds you realize that the Duke felt his wife’s favors were too widely spread about, that he might be cuckolded, that he wouldn’t stoop to correcting her flaws, but rather,
I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive.
As the poem closes you realize the guest to whom the Duke is speaking is helping to arrange a second marriage for the Duke. The implied threat is that this next wife should be more seemly than the first—or else she might meet the same fate.
All of a sudden the poem made sense. It was creepy, darkly funny, sarcastic, misogynistic. And it got me reading a little more Browning.
Though Johnny Depp does deliver “Jabberwocky” in a thick Scottish highlands accent, none of Lewis Carroll’s other antic poems make it into the movie. So you don’t get to hear the Duchess recite, as she violently shakes her baby:
Speak roughly to your little boy,
And beat him when he sneezes;
He only does it to annoy,
Because he knows it teases.
And you don’t get to hear the Mock Turtle and the Gryphon sing “The Lobster Quadrille” to Alice:
“Will you walk a little faster?” said a whiting to a snail,
“There’s a porpoise close behind us, and he’s treading on my tail.
See how eagerly the lobsters and the turtles all advance!
They are waiting on the shingle—will you come and join the dance?
Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, will you join the dance?
Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, won’t you join the dance?
And saddest of all, you don’t get to hear the Mock Turtle, choked with sobs, sing my personal favorite:
Beautiful Soup, so rich and green,
Waiting in a hot tureen!
Who for such dainties would not stoop?
Soup of the evening, beautiful Soup!
Soup of the evening, beautiful Soup!
Beau-ootiful Soo-oop! Beau-ootiful Soo-oop!
Soo-oop of the e-e-evening,
Beautiful, beautiful Soup!