As the second half of the twentieth century rolled along, a dreadful thing happened on the way to learning: Sesame Street. Suddenly, learning had to be FUN!! It had to have an entertainment element. Kids could no longer revel in the sheer joy of discovery through asking questions, through thinking, through struggle. No, no, no. They apparently needed a big yellow bird to ease their suffering. They apparently needed to become passive takers-in. Ah, television.
Teachers needed to adapt and overcome if they were going to engage the TV generation. To this, I mostly said “are you KIDDING me?!?!?” and proceeded as though a movie bearing the title of a novel is never as good as the novel. (Because it isn’t.) I proceeded as though writing takes a great deal of effort, thought, revision, and effort (yes, I said that twice — because it does). I proceeded under the auspices of discovery, and that words have meanings; therefore, novels, essays, short stories, dramas, and poetry have MEANING! Obviously, this means(HA!) that I proceeded under the following guideline: ‘THERE’S NO FUN IN ENGLISH CLASS!!’ I liked to point this out most especially when students experienced light bulb moments — when they caught the magic in the metaphor, when they recognized a profound truth, when they fell in love or hate with a memorable character. Or, when a poem stumped them, and I forgot the rule barring fun from making an appearance.
Enter William Carlos Williams.
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
This poem is a stumper. What can it mean?
Every time I brought this poem to students, I likened it to the pervasive, creeping power of the former Soviet Union, with the red wheelbarrow obviously representing the ideology of Communism and its state-run economy which can be interpreted as an oppression of the working class, who, unable to fly (chickens, see?) from their misery, thirst for freedom, represented in the glistening rain. Their purity (WHITE chickens!) and vulnerability (they can’t FLY!!) engage our sympathies, and further the cause of defending freedom against foreign aggressors who yearn to rule the world…
Of course it doesn’t MEAN that.
And that is what happens when we disparage the rules, and have fun in English class.
After all, who cares about the fact that the poem was published in 1923 (maybe slightly ahead of the Communist threat?)? Who needs to know that it’s a fine example of Imagism? Who wants to take the time to discover if the poet himself had and words to say on the poem’s subject matter? Why bother highlighting that Williams was both poet and physician… that he might have considered himself a “poet of the people” or that the poem might have some biographical significance to him? (Sergio Rizzo — JML)
It’s poetry. Obviously, you can’t have fun with that. Imaginary plausibility? Exploring reality? How could such discoveries be fun? For fun, you’d need a Muppet, or a video game, or a youtube video.
There’s no fun in English class. No, no, no.
At least, that’s why I tell my students…
(insert smiley face here)