in decisions

In class last week, I asked my students to write impromptu responses to a poem by Robert Frost. I asked them to speculate about meaning, but I also asked them to tell whether they liked or disliked the poem, and why.

(While likings and dislikings can only take you so far in studying literature, I think it’s important to be able to articulate them.)

We ran the gamut of responses, from smart, thoughtful pages to a paragraph which admitted that even google–apparently accessed under the desk during the essay-writing portion of class–had no light to shed on the poem’s meaning. Three responses to the “do you like it” question stuck out at me, however: two which expressed dislike because they were unsure of the poem’s meaning, and a third which expressed ambivalence, “If I understood what Frost was trying to say I could make a decision.”

All things are not always clear.

I’ve been chewing on that: when did understanding become an absolute prerequisite for liking or disliking? Do my students apply this same standard to song lyrics? To people they meet? Even to life experiences? Don’t most things have an element of mystery about them, and yet we form opinions anyway?

Today I asked them to give me a paragraph speculating why J. Alfred Prufrock “should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.” They weren’t comfortable with the question, even when all they needed to give me was a paragraph.

My students want answers. They want objective meanings. They’d rather give me a paragraph pieced together from answers on a google search than any original speculation about what two lines of poetry might mean. They’re afraid of being wrong.

Today I told them that much poetry resists objective meanings and tidy explanations. It demands that you spend time in it, absorb its atmosphere; if what the poet wanted to communicate could be put into a neat statement of meaning, there would be no need to write poetry. Let go of the need to know “what it means,” and maybe you’ll begin to understand it a little better.

I think of a statement which Mary Ellen Chase makes in her novel The Lovely Ambition: “no understanding whatever [is] possible without an initial and perhaps even reckless casting aside of all one’s unanswerable questions, doubts, and fears.” Chase is talking about God, but she might mean poetry, or people, or life. The pursuit of answers can sometimes leave us paralyzed, incapable of any meaningful action or thought. (Witness J. Alfred Prufrock, with his “hundred indecisions,” wondering “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”, playing out potential scenarios, and so occupied with all of that that he never does anything.)

Decisions can be changed. Understanding may convince you that you dislike something you initially thought you liked, or like something that you began disliking. But deferring all decisions until you understand everything: that leaves no room for change of any kind.

I’d like it if, when my students leave my class, they not only know more about literature, but are also more comfortable with not having answers. I’d like it if they were willing to let understanding dawn gradually on them, as they watch and wait, instead of insisting on having “meanings” at the flip of a light switch. Then maybe, down the road one day, they’ll bump into a line of poetry they first read in my class, and they’ll realize that they know what it means, not because I told them, but because they’ve lived it.

I won’t know about that, of course, but I like to think of it happening.


©2013 by Stacy Nott

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