Secret Decoder Ring

Posted on April 3, 2010


Nope, we won’t be including a secret decoder ring with every new Quale book. A couple months ago my son’s fifth grade teacher got wind that I was a poet. Soon enough she extended an invitation to me to give a poetry reading to my son’s class and to listen to each of them recite a poem of their choice. I really enjoyed listening to this group of 10- and 11-year-olds. There were the requisite choices of poems from Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Frost and Shel Silverstein (my son’s choice), but when two of my son’s classmates got up and recited the “Who’s on First” routine, with one kid being Abbott and the other Costello, I could not help but smile. It was hard not to see that these kids were hyped up (although that possibly had more to do with their recently ingesting ice cream sundaes) about poetry (albeit also a bit nervous about reading in front of the class). When I talked about writing poetry with them afterward, they were in rapt attention (despite the rising sugar levels). I told them I was happy to listen again to “Who’s on First,” knowing that most people would not regard that as poetry. But I told them that there is so much beautiful wordplay in that comedic sketch, it could not help but be a wild dramatic poem. I told them just to keep on reading, to read everything, and that they would find poems in almost anything.

After the dust of that day settled in, I started to wonder how many of those 18 kids would still be juiced up about poetry by the time they were entering college. I seriously doubt even one (well, maybe my own son but he lets me know clearly he prefers machines to words — ah, my little futurist…). Somewhere along the line poetry will become something dreaded for them, something they’ll feel better off without. All I could think of was that at some point in the education process there’s an emphasis on becoming serious about poetry, that poetry is something outside of us, that it has a definite meaning (like 2+2=4) other than what the poem says and that “you have to get it.” If you don’t get it, or if you come up with a non-approved “meaning,” you get to feeling stupid or deficient. Somehow poetry goes from something fun and beautiful and inside us and good and necessary to something outside of us that’s difficult to decipher and utterly useless for anything.

This is not an argument for simpler, more accessible poems. Far from it. This is just a plea and a call to look at how presenting poems to minds just entering a major phase of intellectual independence and development gets twisted into something it really is not.

What can easily piss me off is someone asking me what I meant to say in a particular poem. I usually restrain myself from shouting as loud as possible, “Exactly what I said in the poem is what I meant. IF I WANTED TO MEAN OR SAY SOMETHING ELSE, I WOULD HAVE DONE SO.” No secret decoder ring required. If you don’t “get it,” I’m not intentionally trying to make you feel stupid. All I am trying to do, is to convey something exactly in the fashion I fashion it. If it leaves you cold and you don’t respond to it, that’s OK. It’s a matter of taste.

All I’m gravitating to at the moment is a feeble desire that we approach the teaching of poetry as one based in the ecology of aesthetics (a living organism related symbiotically with other organisms) instead of a dry critical anatomy of vivisection.