time has come,” the Walrus said,
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.”
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
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
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,
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
All of a sudden the poem made sense. It was creepy, darkly
funny, sarcastic, misogynistic. And it got me reading a little
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:
you walk a little faster?” said a whiting to a snail,
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
Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, will you join the
Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, won’t you join the
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!