A poem does not necessarily make an appeal to everyone. My task as a teacher is to make students understand a poem in the simplest way possible. But, I face a real critical challenge when a ‘non-literature’ student hurls at me a question as simple as this: “How does a poem help, at all?”
Initially, this question seems to imply as if I am taking pains to explain such an insignificant, unhelpful thing as a poem. I have at least two points to think of patiently before answering the student. First, the kid throws this to me after I pester on him with “ask anything otherwise I will keep on throwing challenges on you in every class until you open your mouth.” Second, this is the first ever expression he has dared to utter in my class in the six months I am with him and I have got to respect it. Or he will go silent forever.
Well, how would the poem help? How, if the poem is about the most mundane stuff like running a shop or going shopping? Not love, tragedy or explicit romance but running a shop with a couple of sneaky, cheeky staff, buying things from them?
The question may also follow a commonplace expression from another student, “What is the message of the poem?” And my answer involves a number of counter-questions:
- How does taking or seeing a photograph help?
- How does listening a song help?
- What message do you get when you happen to catch sight of a grandly dressed beautiful young lady hurrying somewhere?
- What message do you get by involuntarily hearing an aircraft passing above you?
I want to emphasize that an ordinary reading of a poem is not about seeking meaning or a message. It is about facing or finding the message unawares, like making sense of a piece of art or photograph when you happen to catch sight of it out of nowhere.
I extend my explanation to intended efforts to understand the purpose, which would answer the question ‘how does a poem help?’ A poem may be trying to tell us something, to simply inform us. A poem like David Ignatow’s “The Boss” may, therefore, be trying to let us know about ordinary shop-keeping. With this telling, the poem may be trying to make us aware of certain problems, thereby inducing us to think about the solution. Or it may challenge our incomplete/limited understanding of realities. In yet another level, it may have wanted to please us, to give us some wisdom, some wit and some itches about human secrets.
After all, a poem like ‘The Boss” has a simple purpose — to tell something about interpersonal relationship in the context of a workstation, harmlessly critical attitudes and natural compromises. In a sense, the poem makes us prepared to face the world of imperfections whenever we enter a career or join a society.
And I also cherish these everyday classroom realities:
- I also ask three girls to throw questions on me, but all of them usually go numb/dumb.
- I asked ten boys to ask me anything, and only three of them comply.
And, I should confess, the questions as much as the silent faces make my day.