Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Bicycle Riding, Teaching Poetry, and David Ignatow's "The Bagel"

I've been helping my 5 year old daughter learn how to ride a bike over the past two days. Each time I've become--as she has become--overwhelmed with the sheer joy of bike riding, that distinct pleasure that is so . . . unadulterated, the wind in her face, lips peeled back in that smile of pure freedom that comes when one learns to do something on her own for the first time. In a matter of an hour or so, she went from hardly being able to pedal with training wheels (they hobbled the bike despite my adjustments) to biking unaided down the street and around the cul-de-sac. On her pink Disney Princesses bike, she's a (My Little) racing pony with "the power of speed, the power of balance," so she shouts from her glittery white seat. And away she goes.

And I thought there must be a poem I can post about this joy of bicycling. What came to mind instead was David Ignatow's "The Bagel,"perhaps the most joyful poem of all time.

And I intended to share it here and not say too much else about it. Problem is--one of the first links I tabbed in Safari turned out to be a brief analysis of Ignatow's poem at Elite Skills, a "Poetry and Writing Workshop" website. What I read so irked me--I no longer found myself capable of just dropping a link. I don't believe the text is copyright sensitive, so here it is:

Recently in our English class, we deciphered David Ignatow's The Bagel. We discovered deeper meaning and found that the bagel was a metaphor for the man's childhood. At first the man thinks childhood is something he wants to give away and get rid of but then realizes that he needs it. When chasing the "bagel" down the street he turns into a "bagel" himself, meaning while chasing down his childhood he relives some of the fun of his childhood that he initially wanted to give away.

While the analysis is not exactly off, it reeks of a high school English class (egad! this could be a college course...) whose coaching on the matter does little service to poetry and its pleasures at large. In fact, it does a grave disservice. Of course, I am making some assumptions here, which is a bit unfair, but--I doubt the writer of this little blob came up with the explanation on his own.

More likely, based on my experience as a former poetry-hating high school student and my conversations with many other former and current poetry-hating high school students, the writer was told, with a bit of pseudo-prompting common to the poor teaching of poetry, what the poem was about. Words like "deciphered" and "deeper meaning" lead me to this conclusion, as does the notion that "the bagel was a metaphor for the man's childhood." I mean--really? The bagel equals childhood? So then, in the poem's penultimate line, we can insert "childhood" for "bagel" such that the speaker rolls "one complete somersault / after another like a childhood / and strangely happy with [him]self"? I don't think so, Bub. That would elevate the bagel to the level of symbol, and the symbol is dead. Why must teachers of English (they hardly teach poetry . . . or English for that matter) revert to the symbol? Why must this always stand for that? I avoided what I thought was poetry for a long time due to such a pedagogical stance and ingraining. As for Ignatow, "The Bagel," and Elite Skills, the bagel does not stand for childhood in any way, shape, or form.

However, this moment, this wonderful, magical moment when the speaker turns into the bagel, somersault by somersault, is certainly child-like, so I can see where such a leap could be erroneously made. But it's this moment that evokes childhood, not the bagel. It's the pleasure of turning lemons into lemonade by surprise--an unforeseen joy--that takes the speaker, the poem, and its readers into the fun of being a kid. Who else could turn into a bagel and roll down the street? Certainly not the old man who wrote the poem (Ignatow was born in 1914). So, yes. There is some truth to that analysis when it says the speaker does relive "some of the fun of his childhood," but in no way is he chasing it down. In no way does he want "to give [it] away . . . then realizes that he needs it." Nothing in the poem leads readers to such "deeper meaning" conclusions. In fact, those ideas are just wrong. I mean--the speaker says directly he was "annoyed with [him]self / for having dropped it." He didn't give anything away.

So, yes, deeper meaning. It seems to me that poems that work offer everything--or just about everything--a reader needs right on the surface. It's all right there in direct view, open sunlight. The problem is that we are trained in our early years to believe that poetry is a code, that it is a mystery that must be figured out, that its words are clues to some vast, hidden agenda that lies deep below the surface of the poem, and so we learn to look past the surface into some abyss where answers apparently lie. I am not arguing that good poems don't work in layers. They do. I'm simply saying "the answer" isn't there. There is no answer. There is no code to break--generally speaking--and there is no hidden mystery. If there was, then what's all that stuff at the surface if not a cover-up? The poetry becomes a mechanism for hiding meaning and truth--the true meaning of a poem--instead of a mechanism for revealing such matters. To say there is a hidden meaning--a deeper meaning, whatever--altogether negates the purpose of writing poems, which is to express and reveal, not to hide and conceal. There are always exceptions to the norm, of course, but Ignatow's "The Bagel" is not one of them.

Really, my beef with all this is that when teachers teach poems in this manner of deciphering and such, they really mistreat the art of poetry. They relegate it to the role of legerdemain and bypass all the quality craft-stuff that makes a worthwhile poem worthwhile. An additional detriment, by treating a poem like a Rubik's cube, teachers tell students that once it's been figured out, it's done. It's over. It's--solved. And then students don't see the poem as an experience; they see it as a trick to be mastered, a question to be answered, when in fact that's hardly ever the case. Consider it's the journey, as "The Bagel" suggests, not the goal.


Anyway, I think my daughter has had a few bagel-like experiences these past few days, and I with her. Pure, unadulterated joy. And there's no mystery in that.

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