Learning Poems

Poetry: A Closer Look.
by James M. Reid, John Ciardi, and Laurence Perrine.
Harcourt, Brace and World. 117 pp. $3.50.

Last year one young candidate for Miss America, being quizzed by the emcee about her beliefs, spoke of the collaboration between man and the Holy Spirit in fostering a “superior product.” (She was using “product” in its contemporary sense: not something that has been produced but something that is to be sold.) Poetry: A Closer Look is such a “superior product.” It is a palpably physical thing, a sort of “kit” constituted by the variety of colors, thicknesses, textures, and layouts of which paper is capable—not unlike the paper fiddle-faddle (or “trip menu”) placed on the backs of bus seats to keep the passengers’ hands busy and their minds empty. All of this is designed to convey the modernity and scientificalness of “programmed instruction, the revolutionary new self-study method”—for where would science be without orange ruled lines, light-blue bookmarks (“Use a card to cover up the answer column. Move the card down to uncover the correct answer”), and gray answer columns? And where would poetry be without science’s “students of learning,” their “psychological principles and teaching techniques” brought together “in a systematic, coherent, controlled approach to learning,” their “more than a thousand readers” who have pre-tested all the answers in order to “reduce the likelihood of incorrect responses?”

This book proposes, then, as many others have, to place culture under the auspices of science. Its method of Programmed Instruction or, more familiarly, P.I., is summarized by the authors as follows:

  1. The information to be learned is broken down into a series of short statements or steps.
  2. Each step asks a question or otherwise requires an active response.
  3. The steps are arranged so that the responses are likely to be correct ones.
  4. The reader finds out immediately whether his responses are correct.

Now, there may be somewhere in Mouseland some minuscule body of knowledge and some corresponding intelligence that the simple-minded behaviorism implicit in all this might serve to bring together. But can there really be a mind worth educating, however school-scarred and diffident, that would not be dulled and stifled by the Method—by its mere correctness, its lugubrious, anonymous, savorless prose, its laborious nitwittedness? Poetry gets learned like anything else, by means of the human concern it evokes, the curiosity it arouses, the delight it gives. And the appropriate instruction is precisely the criticism that conveys the concern and delight of a mind confronting the works that excite it. Not the universal mind but someone’s mind, eccentric, opinionated, or indecisive, but with its individual style sensitive to the ventures, ellipses, and surprises of thinking. P.I., at least as we have it in the closed system of Mr. Reid’s questions and responses, gives none of this, and instead depresses the understanding and the imagination. With its vapid pseudo-scientific stylelessness, the prose of a mediocrity close to madness, it is merely the baloney of the usual textbook served up in presliced packages—and with an insulting air of benevolence, as if the reader had not put out $3.50 for what amounts to a paltry anthology of thirty-eight poems (“carefully arranged and graded in difficulty,” to be sure), two slight essays by Mr. Perrine and Mr. Ciardi in what the book calls with perfect justice “conventional prose,” and Mr. Reid’s section of P.I.

The case of the textbook ought not to be slurred over with the word “usual,” since it forms no small part of the scandal of education in America. The textbook industry must take large responsibility for the fact that American college students have, generally, no conception of what thought is, wish to reduce all matters of opinion and interest to correct answers, are unwilling to live with their own questions, their puzzlement and wonder, and want most, as P.I. promises, to “feel better and learn better.” Poetry: A Closer Look would not be worth noticing if it did not seem likely to contribute abundantly to this stupor of trivial certainties that passes for education. Indeed, the selling point of P.I. is that it will make learning “take place more rapidly and efficiently.” This implies that the end of “learning” a poem is known. It is not, so long as education and poetry still have something to do with civilization. “Correct” and “erroneous” cannot properly be used to characterize “responses” to poems.

And what does this book actually have to say about poetry? We are given some critical vocabulary (symbol, ambiguity, resonance), a strange though fashionable aesthetic that opposes simplicity to profundity (which is equated with complexity) and asks the reader to identify with the poem. There is also a dull reading of Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” that blows the poem up into a platitudinous generality and, by the way, misses in it a certain sly and evergreen smugness that so often betrays the hand of the master. There is also a set of seven “guides to reading poetry”—“Read and reread,” “Recognize the symbols and respond to both the underlying ideas and their emotional power,” etc.

Now, for a few examples. Here is P.I. avuncular:

Read the poem aloud to yourself or a few friends. You might read it right now if you are in a proper spot. If you are not in a suitable place for actual reading aloud, lip-read the poem. Form the words with your lips and tongue even though you do not actually utter them. Lip-reading prose is not desirable, but under some circumstances it is all right to—-—poetry.


This book, you will remember, is addressed to normal adults.

Here are two examples of the Method in full sail. The subject of the first is the Frost poem, of the second, Thomas Hardy’s “The Man He Killed”:

Identify means to “become one with.” Your occasional loneliness merged with the narrator’s loneliness—a deep and universal human experience. You identified yourself with the narrator. For a moment you become—with the man in the poem.

one or identified

Did you i—fy yourself with the speaker in the poem?—Have you ever experienced the horror of war: in your reading, at the theater, on television, or in life?

Your answer
Your answer

I don’t believe that “loneliness” and “horror of war” as they occur in these bland, silly, condescending sentences are human expressions. If they are, then I no longer know what either of them means.

Now, reader, perhaps you feel as I do, that you have been made a member of the great public patronized by the anonymous demagogues of advertising. How dare they be so familiar without showing their contempt! The final indignity—it is the currency of our public life—is just this withheld contempt.

Reader, do you feel as I do? Do you i—fy yourself with me?

Your answer.



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