Jul/Aug 2016 Nonfiction

Teaching to Read, Reading to Teach

by Michael Milburn

Photographic Artwork by Victoria Mlady

Photographic Artwork by Victoria Mlady


An Object in and of Itself

When my ninth grade English class returned to school after winter break this year, I handed out copies of Emma Donoghue's novel Room, whose setting, circumstances, and relationships are revealed gradually over its first 97 pages—that is, unless one has already learned those details from the summary or blurbs on the paperback's cover, the author interview or reading group guide at the end, or eager recommenders blurting plot spoilers. To complicate matters further, the movie adaptation of Room was playing in theaters as we read it, accompanied by ubiquitous TV ads featuring the trailer, which gave away plot points well beyond page ninety-seven. The actress Brie Larson was receiving Oscar buzz for her portrayal of one of the book's protagonists, putting a face to a character for whom Donoghue provides minimal physical description.

All of this gave my curious, internet-savvy students ample opportunity for exposure to information and opinion about the novel before they read its first sentence. I wasn't sure how Donoghue or any authors felt about readers coming to their stories so well-briefed, or whether my plea that students avoid outside discourse about Room for a while was literary good sense or overkill. They took my information embargo seriously—one boy wrapped his copy with paper so that only the book's text was visible—and for the first few days of discussion eagerly pieced together the who, what, why, and where of Room in a way that I like to think would have pleased Donoghue, who after all wrote the book with just that degree of deliberateness.

I wasn't modeling my own reading behavior in keeping my class ignorant. I had discovered Room—as I do many books that I read for pleasure—through a laudatory New York Times review that summarized those early pages, and I don't recall feeling compromised by my advance knowledge or expectations. I rarely begin books or turn on music or go to movies without knowing something about them that has motivated me to investigate further. At the very least, I'm guided to and through art by my preference for certain styles and subject matter, and in choosing books to teach I try to anticipate what my students will like based on what they have liked in the past. At the same time, perhaps the best lesson that I or any high school English teacher can impart is not to accept familiarity as the only arbiter of what they will try and keep trying, lest this prevent them from discovering work that could expand their perspectives and standards.

When I was in school in the 1970s, the poets I admired—Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Randall Jarrell—had come of age under the sway of The New Criticism, the movement founded in 1939 by John Crowe Ransom, Lowell's and Jarrell's teacher at Kenyon College. The New Critics, according to one biographer, "focused their attention on the work of art as an object in and of itself, independent of outside influences," and counted among those influences any writing about the work or the artist's life. Why anyone would want to isolate literature in this way puzzles me. I love reading reviews and craft interviews, and am fascinated by how writers turn the raw material of their experience into art. I can't separate my enjoyment of that art from my interest in its ingredients, and don't want to.

Has it ever been possible to approach art in the way the New Critics recommend? Even in Ransom's day people often knew the plots and backstories of classics such as Moby Dick and Pride and Prejudice before reading them, and the label "classic" originates in the opinions of previous readers. But knowing that the whale defeats Ahab or that Elizabeth and Darcy end up together hardly diminishes these novels; beauty and genius are so bred into the writing that their plots, like many of Shakespeare's, suffice as familiar structures overlaid by style. I can understand how a scholar might prefer a purely textual reading, but anyone who fears a book will be ruined by extraneous information must doubt the author's ability to sustain interest through his or her prose. It speaks well of Room that my two students who knew all about the book before we started—one from seeing the movie trailer and the other from hearing her parents discuss it—were no less enthralled by it than their classmates.

This extra-textual material only troubles me in one respect: I want my students to see a book as made thing, plotted and paced by a writer sitting at a keyboard, presumably without the consequences of its success in mind. It's unlikely that Emma Donoghue, as she labored to create the claustrophobic space of Room through the voice of its five-year-old narrator, thought that a publicist's dust-jacket synopsis of those pages would reach her readers' eyes first, or that a movie trailer would bring the child to audio-visual life. I imposed the information blackout on my class in order to keep Room from becoming a hybrid of publicity, gossip, cinema, and literature. Did I also detach the book from the world that gave rise to it and that it was created to comment on and be part of? Ideally, the quality of art survives no matter how we approach it, a fact that was brought home to me by a song I heard for the first time on my car radio.



While You Were Sleeping

The singer/songwriter Elvis Perkins is the son of the actor Anthony Perkins and his wife, the photographer, actress, and model Berry Berenson. Berenson was a passenger on American Airlines Flight 11 that crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center—the first of the two towers to be hit and the second to fall—on September 11, 2001. I didn't know any of this the first time I listened to Perkins's song "While You Were Sleeping," from his 2007 debut album Ash Wednesday, and simply thought it a lovely guitar-based ballad by a songwriter I had never heard of. My pleasure in it led me to investigate Perkins's biography, after which it made sense to hear the lyrics as an elegy for Berry Berenson, a poignant imagining of her last moments alive:

While you were sleeping, you tossed you turned,
You rolled your eyes as the world burned.
The heavens fell, the earth quaked.
I thought you must be, but you weren't awake, no,
You were dreaming, you ignored the sun...
Were you falling, were you flying, and were you calling out, or were you dying?

When I listened to the song again after researching its author, it conjured an image of a sleeping woman on American Flight 11, oblivious to the terrorists mobilizing around her to redirect the plane on its collision course. Even if the woman wasn't the author's mother, this context would have given the words tremendous breadth. The fact that she was made me look beyond the scene's immediate drama into the emotions of a son picturing the minutes before and during his mother's death. Like sequentially unlocking doors, the levels of the song opened to me the more I listened to and learned and thought about it. And while its subject matter alone invests it with great emotion, Perkins's artful lyrics account for just as much of its power, conveying meaning beyond biography in a way that, for example, "Here Today," Paul McCartney's heartfelt but superficial elegy for John Lennon, doesn't.

But as for me,
I still remember how it was before,
And I am holding back these tears no more,
here to-day.

Unlike McCartney's, Perkins's lyrics aren't clichéd or sentimental; they're poetry:

While you were sleeping I tossed and I turned too
I closed my eyes but the future burned through
The planet turned a hair grey as I relived the day

Nor is Perkins's virtuosity solely literary; the song's arrangement grows in complexity and substance as it proceeds, starting with a simple finger-picked acoustic guitar accompanied by Perkins's voice and adding instrumentation over the course of its six-minute length. The concluding orchestral crescendo couldn't be further in tone from the opening measures. In a performance of the song with his band Dearland on "Late Night with David Letterman," Perkins creates a visual equivalence for this effect: at the start, he stands alone in a spotlight, singing and playing guitar. Gradually, more lights come up as a double bass player, then a drummer/harmonica player, and finally a harmonium player walk onstage and begin to play. The song's lyrical and musical superiority to the rest of the Ash Wednesday album made me think that Perkins's grief at his mother's horrific death had pushed his talent to or even beyond its limits.

Except that it hadn't. From the moment I learned about Berry Berenson's death and Perkins's relation to her, the song's connection to 9/11 seemed obvious: according to Perkins's Wikipedia page, the album it appears on, Ash Wednesday, "was shaped in part by [9/11] and its aftermath." Only much later in outlining this essay did I google "Elvis Perkins While You Were Sleeping Berry Berenson 9/11." This produced a link to a blog post by Perkins's friend Paul Chesne, who had been with him in California on September 11, 2001, the day Berry Berenson boarded American Flight 11 in Boston to travel to see her son play a show in Los Angeles.

The only thing we could do was gather the troops and head to Elvis's house. The airline couldn't completely confirm if his mom was on the plane or not. We still had a little hope that maybe she missed the flight.

I remember standing out on his deck on Seattle Drive off Woodrow Wilson in the middle of the Hollywood Hills and hearing the eerie silence of no planes in the air.

I remember not knowing what to do, but just hugging Elvis when hours later the airline finally called to confirm that his mom boarded the plane.

I remember when we all held hands in a circle out on the deck and Pat Ast sang the Lord's Prayer and a little bumble bee kept landing on our hands forcing us to break the circle and laugh right in the middle of all that pain. Elvis had written the song "While You Were Sleeping" a couple years before for his mom, and in that song he calls her, "My Honey B." He played that song at her memorial a few days later.

Later in the post Chesne specifies that "Elvis wrote the song 'While You Were Sleeping' about his mom probably in the late 90's in their house on Cape Cod while she was literally taking a nap."

Though I felt sheepish about misreading the song, my sheepishness gave way to an epiphany. My narrow—and incorrect—reading of "While You Were Sleeping" as an elegy for a murdered mother had given the song more depth and emotion than if I had heard it in 1997, not knowing who Elvis Perkins's parents were. Yet hearing the song post-9/11, knowing it pre-dated Berry Berenson's death by several years, made it even more moving for being so eerily prescient. By drawing on his knowledge of and feelings for his mother when she was alive, and describing her during such a peaceful and mundane activity as napping, Perkins unwittingly composed a fitting elegy. I suspect that his performance of the song at her memorial service affected the mourners, and even Perkins himself, more profoundly than if he had composed it for that occasion. I hear much more in it now than I did hearing it as an intentional elegy, and admire it more than I did before discovering my chronological error.

Still, thinking about my various encounters with "While You Were Sleeping"—first uninformed, then misinformed, and finally informed—I realized that information had little bearing on my pleasure in what I heard. I loved finding out that Anthony Perkins's son was a songwriter, a good songwriter, and making the Berry Berenson 9/11 connection, and arriving at the surprising chronology, but these revelations satisfied my interest rather than my appetite for art. Maybe the New Critics' insistence on treating "the work of art as an object in and of itself" is the reader's (or listener's or viewer's) instinct as well. My students who still loved Room after being exposed to publicity and movie images would agree.



Someone would say, What about Ashbery, and I'd say, I'd prefer strawberry. —Philip Larkin, Paris Review interview

No matter what predisposition we bring to art, we also come influenced by taste. Taste pushes us toward trying one work over another, liking one work over another, and persevering with one work over another. My love for contemporary naturalistic fiction dictates what kinds of books I read in my free time and teach, which imposes my preference on my students. I often feel guilty about not trying harder to broaden my range and, by extension, theirs. And yet given all the diversely opinioned teachers they will have, won't that broadening and expanding happen anyway? Perhaps each teacher hawking his or her particular passion and leaving it to students to choose their allegiances is the proper way to educate.

Besides, I'm not sure how much anyone's taste can be broadened beyond instinctive likes and dislikes. My students constantly point me toward different styles of music than the Beatlesque American folk/rock I grew up with and still love, and I find much to appreciate in this way, but the looking and even the enjoying are always a bit self-conscious, willed. When they press upon me rap songs by Tupac Shakur, Kanye West, and Kendrick Lamar, extolling their lyrical and rhythmic genius, I hear what they admire. Left to my own car radio, however, I tune to what I know, which is how I discovered "While You Were Sleeping" on an NPR show featuring "adult contemporary" music. My only impetus to keep listening, and then to reflect on and research the lyrics, was that I enjoyed doing so.

Considering how personal taste is, I always feel ambivalent when an influential opinion elevates one work of art over another. Thirty years ago, when I worked in the Harvard library, the student literary magazine asked me to fill in as a last-minute substitute judging an undergraduate poetry contest. One of my work-study students served on the editorial board, knew that I wrote poetry, and suggested my name. The first choice judge, the Harvard alumnus John Ashbery, had already accepted the job, but wasn't responding to messages trying to coordinate delivery of the entries. I found it alternately impossible and hilarious that I was being asked to replace John Ashbery, and told the editors that the entrants would be too disappointed, if not infuriated, by the switch. They assured me that the cash prize mattered more than the judge's identity, which I doubted, but I sympathized with their predicament and agreed to help out.

I picked up the poems the following day and began to read, establishing piles for Promising, Maybe, and Definitely Not. Within a few days I had culled my ten favorites, later reduced to five. The day before the deadline for picking a winner, as I had just finished narrowing the finalists to five, John Ashbery walked into my library office. He apologized for his late appearance, and had just come from speaking with the journal editors, who proposed that he and I judge the contest together, to which he had agreed. I said that the entrants would much prefer to be judged by him alone (thinking, You are John Ashbery, after all), but he wouldn't hear of it, and asked me which submissions I had liked so far. I handed him my five finalists along with the rest of the submissions and urged him to make his own choices.

All five of Ashbery's selections came from my reject pile, and I couldn't see what he admired in them, except that two of them struck me as derivative of his own poems. We negotiated three overall winners and an honorable mention, with me making sure that the first and second place poems came from his batch. I still felt that the contest had been his to judge and that his reputation and accomplishment gave his preferences far more weight than mine. I only regretted this insofar as I genuinely thought that my choices were better than his, and not just slightly better—I didn't see much merit in his at all and thought that he had liked them in part because they sounded like him.

Ironically, no poet had more of an influence on the poetry that I wrote as a young man than Ashbery, whose book Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror was published in 1979, my senior year of college. It's common for a poetic voice that one admires when young to work its way into one's own lines, with the latter frequently crossing over into outright imitation until eventually—ideally—one breaks free. For much of my 20s, the phrasings and rhythms of my writing conspicuously copied those of my three favorite poets, Philip Larkin, Robert Lowell, and Ashbery. I'm hardly the only poet born mid-century who paid homage to these poets in this way.

Also like many of my peers, I loved Ashbery's difficulty, at least in the poems in Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, which revealed themselves to me a bit more with each re-reading. In his subsequent poems, I struggled increasingly to locate any trace of a narrative. If I did pick up on one, it would abruptly stop or swerve, as if taunting me that my desperation to find some "aboutness" had led me to assemble clues that weren't intended to inform or cohere. Ashbery's poems began to bore and then infuriate me, and they still do, with each new book provoking the same feelings of denseness and resentment. I understand why some critics revere his work—he has a superb ear and his lines lend themselves to exegesis—and am happy to attribute my opinion to my taste for accessibility. But if I were sorting contest poems today, I would place Ashbery's in the pile marked Definitely Not.

By the time Ashbery appeared in my Harvard office in the late 1980s, I felt disillusioned and impatient with his work as only an ex-disciple can be. I don't know if this predisposed me against his contest choices, or if we simply had different standards for good poetry. What mattered was that Ashbery was the most celebrated living American poet, and I, in my students' parlance, was so not. His judgment clearly carried more weight than mine, but was the discrepancy between his accomplishment and mine enough to make his opinion more trustworthy? Though I deferred to it on the contestants' behalf, that was a capitulation to reality rather than a principled decision. I always believe that my taste in art is correct. Doesn't—shouldn't—everyone feel this way?

Happily, this self-confidence is already part of my students' make-up. When they arrive in my classroom each September, they have been introduced to literature by their middle school English teachers, ideally as a pleasure, sometimes as a chore. For many of them, their parents have promoted reading through recommendations or gifts, or by mandating a certain number of hours per week or books per vacation. Assuming that this well-intended coercion doesn't spoil the experience, some kids will go on reading as a result of it, or simply because they enjoy doing so, or both. What they are acting on—apart from those who read solely to educate themselves—is taste, which does more than govern how we respond to art; it positions us to respond in the first place.

When we do respond, taste plays such an innate role that the only variable is whether we indulge or resist it. For example, I know what styles, subjects, and genres satisfy me—noirish crime films, melodic rock and roll, naturalistic fiction—and indulge my taste by seeking them out. Or I resist it by giving unsympathetic work extra time and consideration, hoping to broaden my repertoire. I benefit from both approaches and would hate to give up either one. When it comes to people applying their taste for their own personal purposes, I'm happy to tolerate difference. But when agreement is called for or the quality of my own work or judgment is in question, I want everyone to like what I like. That's why Ashbery's contest selections disappointed me.

Not that either of us should have disqualified our choices for the sake of consensus, diversity, or any other cause. That kind of aesthetic horsetrading promotes mediocrity. Besides, there's a limit to how much I will come to like something that doesn't please me right away. Sometimes repeated exposure helps, or learning the history and technique behind a difficult work's composition, but my response to the writing that has given me the greatest pleasure has usually been love at first sight. And yet educating tastes is my job, adding to my students' grounds for evaluation. Isn't the classic English teacher success story the kid who finally "gets" Shakespeare? But what about his classmate who fails to have this epiphany, and longs to get home to whatever comic or sci-fi novel he's engrossed in? The latter fails one taste test, rejecting Shakespeare, but aces another by knowing what he likes.

One of my current students, Caleb, keeps up with assignments and contributes constructively to class discussions, but it's clear from comments he has made that he considers reading a school duty, not something he does voluntarily in his free time. Yet he frequently waxes nostalgic about the Harry Potter books, all seven of which he completed on his own initiative during the summer between sixth and seventh grade. He cites nuances of character and plot as fervently as a college English major rhapsodizing about Virginia Woolf, but shows no inclination to pursue reading further on his own. Even allowing for his age, I find his apathy mystifying—can't he see that his discovery of seven life-changing books means there might be others out there? By not indulging his taste—indeed, by resisting it in such a self-defeating way—he squanders it.

I imagine it was the hype surrounding Harry Potter—midnight store queues, movie tie-ins, lunch boxes, peer pressure—that brought the books to Caleb's attention, and maybe it will take that kind of targeted publicity onslaught to lure him to a new favorite. As for his classmates, most of them thanked me for warning them away from the Room media bombardment, even though the ones who had already been exposed seemed uncorrupted by outside influence. Both groups unknowingly endorsed the New Critics' command to shut out everything but the text in order to determine what it communicates on its own. Though this approach sounds even less feasible in our information-saturated age than in Ransom's, it came naturally to them as a way to establish a unique relationship with Room or any work of literature.


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