English teachers have it tough enough without the quicksand questions that threaten to swallow up
their best intentions. These questions may well be honest responses to a dawning age of illiteracy.
Perhaps we should welcome such questions for their honesty and the invitation to renew our sense of
what we do and why. The questions increasingly seem to defy answer and if we don't practice our
answers, we may find English relegated to the "electives" bin. What follows is my practice. But first,
the questions.
Why study English?
Why should it be compulsory?
Why learn to admire dead writers who, after all, offer only their own opinions about life?
Why study what I already know - how to read and write? - it's like studying how to breathe.
Why should I read writers who seem so depressed by life?
Why read writers who are difficult when there is plenty on tv and in popular books to entertain?
Why spend time on poetry when so few people read it unless forced to by school programs?
How will this help me get a job?
These are good questions which deserve an answer. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers and to
admit this is a quick turn-off for the questioner who has, perhaps, already posed the question rhetorically,
with no expectation of an answer. There are "answers," but hearing them is itself an accomplishment.
The answer is to be found in the full experience of the work of literature itself, and it is the experience
alone, not an explanation of it, which alone can convince. Still, we might use words to suggest ways of
finding the experience. "Are you experienced?" asked Hendrix, echoing William Blake.
I ask my students each year which they would prefer in life: wisdom or happiness? Increasingly, the
answer has swung toward happiness - the winner by default, since it seems the fin-de-siecle student is
unable to imagine a wisdom beyond mere opinion (and more and more of the professors they meet in
university will encourage this disability). The bugaboo of relativism has consumed all talk of the
universals William Faulkner spoke of in his 1950 Nobel Address ("love and honor and pity and pride and
compassion and sacrifice"). The new cry is, "that's your opinion" and it is just this certainty, that
uncertainty is the principle of life, which undercuts the arguments in favor of literature. An unholy new
trinity of "so what?" "who cares?" and "what's the difference?" interrupts all explanations of worth and
quality. In this sense, then, the "answers" won't reach an audience until the audience at least allows the
possibility that some things have more worth than others. If Duke University professors revel in the
provocative view that comics are as worthy as Shakespeare, and presumably believe their own
arguments, then the prospects for the study of great literature are bleak. The chance of supplying
persuasive "answers" to students made cynical by the non-value values of a postmodern age shrivels..
But answers there are, if :
you are prepared to think of yourself as more than a fairly complex bit of protoplasm entering and exiting
time/space on the principle of pure chance. (Thomas Hardy was troubled by this view, but his poems remain
powerful for the subtle anguish he makes us share over it, not for the message itself;)
you are willing to pursue that intuition in you that tells you that Pavarotti sings better than you,
Lindros plays better hockey than you, Michaelangelo fashions better sculpture than you;
you can remember those moments where you felt the "landscape sit up and listen" ; where time seemed to
slow down; where love seemed all and enough;
you are still troubled about the idea of life, the injustice of life, the problem of pain(as C S Lewis called it), the
pointlessness of life (unlike the comic book profs who see this, but develop philosophies to remain untroubled).
you are suspicious that, contrary to popular opinion, Shakespeare has not survived 400 years just because
some privileged people have pressed him upon us
you still feel that some things matter even if nothing works.
Literature draws upon most of the major disciplines: history, philosophy, psychology, sociology, science,
religion. It is unique among these, however, in the way it communicates. Its effect is in the artistic
combination of these elements for an experience beyond the disciplines it uses. Literature is after our
hearts and it is here that its effort to communicate truth occurs. Sentimental literature is a failure
because it takes too little care in building the effect - too little thought, design, music, wit, subtlety,
beauty, strength,- to take us out of our normal selves into the literary experience. The "answer" to all
the questions about the usefulness of literature is found in this exalting/humbling experience of
literature. One may be lucky enough to have had this experience through accidental exposure, but the
reading of those works which can most powerfully speak to us this way often requires some training. At
the very least, schools can be the mapmaker pointing out where the treasure is to be found. Or, more
effectively, we can help students see that while some books make for adequate transportation, the real
formula-1 cars, with their multiple gears, hair-raising speeds, death-defying cornering, are needed to give
us the full experience.
But, analogies don't convince like the real thing. Here is a poem by Philip Larkin called "Trees".
The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.
Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too.
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.
Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.
It is a simple poem in diction and syntax. No ten year old would have to look up even one word or wonder
what goes with what. It has only one slightly odd metaphor in "castles" and one simile. Yet, this poem
requires something from the reader before it will give up its true effect. The subject may be biology, but
biology won't help much to understand it. A summary - each year the leaves come into bud and look as
they do every spring, seeming to speak of renewal, but their message is one of sadness because I realize
that it is a trick - does little to hint at the poem's power. What is there to go with this bare meaning? First,
there is the music which starts with the even movement of iambic tetrameter (with a slight urgency
appearing on "yet") and continues into a host of other sound effects: the soft s-r's of the first line coming
up against the hard alliterative g's of the fourth line; the not-so-steady castle making itself heard in the
wind with "castles thresh...thickness" and echoing again in the ironic closing - afresh afresh afresh. And it
is this irony which draws me back into meaning: these images of strength and endurance are a trick - they
will be pulled to the ground with all the rest and it is not renewal they speak of, but extinction. The poem
makes me feel man's appetite for hope countered by a truly unmoving reality. At this point there is
usually a student who thinks - oh, the old idea of death and taxes being the only two sure things in life; big
deal - but big deal it is in the weight the poem puts into the idea, in the opportunity for a sense of shared
humanity. It is this sense that the poem is after, and that schools, godblessthem, still think is worth having
all students reach for. The "something almost being said" is what the poem does - it comes as close to
saying it as it can without ruining it. The most powerful experiences cannot be "said", but it is the effort
of writers to "say" life as closely as life will allow. The timeliness of the trees, the natural ease of the
buds, the solidity and regality of their form, the sound of their leaves, the countering grief of the "trick"
and the dark irony of "afresh" and sweet ironic rhythm of the rhyming lines, the harmony of vowels and
consonants and the sadness, the sadness of the poet who shares his condition and sharpens mine - all of
these together, and those the reasoning mind cannot find name for, work to produce this living thing - a
poem.
Is life only to be made up of the bottom line, a job, entertainment, cynicism and sneering, the practical and
useful? Literature gives us the chance to awaken the humanity in us. It isn't interested in increasing that
storehouse of opinions we all carry about. Its answers are in an awareness of self and in the dispelling of our
aloneness. These are fleeting experiences in continual need of renewal. But, you only need to feel its power
once to know it is real. In childhood, literature allows us to escape ourselves in flights of fancy; adults are
offered the solace of finding themselves again. If it seems imperfect at times, try doing without it. Or have you
been? -B Bauld
Why Study/Teach English?