My degree program is unique, and one of it’s core strategies seems to be sending us all off to find classes in other departments. As you may imagine, this has led to some spectacular experiences that qualify as either thought provoking, or rage inducing. Indeed, last year I enrolled in two sustainability courses from different departments. One has altered the direction of my thesis, and led to a massive hobby project. The other caused me to be exceedingly pleased when I came down with my first ever case of food poisoning, just so I could skip a day. I did not enjoy that class.
This semester I’m in a class that spent a week interpreting poetry.
As a general rule, I love poetry.
It sounds like music when you read it, and the cadence and flow of words alters with each recitation until you have a version that reflects how you personally connect with the poem. I feel the same way about classical music, and painted portraits. In this particular case, we read from a poet new to me, Katherena Vermette. She is an award winning, Canadian Métis author, who composes poetry, children’s books, and North End Love Songs, one of the books I hope to read in the coming year. The poem itself is called Happy Girls.
It’s tiny, 3 stanzas of only 15 words or so, but I dutifully read it through a half dozen times, and took notes on symbolism, feelings, word choice, and overall impressions.
Imagine my surprise when the instructor sat down and told us, in no uncertain terms, the meaning of the poem.
Imagine my surprise when the meaning of these three tiny stanzas include: girls who are prostitutes, from substance and physically abusive homes. Both girls are using cocaine, and one of them is pregnant and considering suicide.
I’ll just let that sink in. Feel free to re-watch or reread the poem yourself. I certainly did.
I am fully prepared to argue the instructor is wrong.
That’s not the message I found in Vermette’s words, and firmly assert it may not be the message she’s sending either. More importantly, that instructor is wrong to tell us how to feel about poetry. This is a graduate level course, with less than 15 people. We all come from different places and different educational disciplines, and this is the perfect setting for affable brabble, honest communication, and learning. What a lost opportunity.
In addition, what is the point in my reading assigned texts, and using any brainpower at all, if someone is just going to tell me their opinion and expect regurgitation on a test? It’s very frustrating to be a student, be you 8 or 28. Teachers always seem to be looking for ways to stifle the thoughts out of you. I should know, I am a teacher.
I may be dead wrong about this poem.
My poetic interpretations aside, I am wholly certain, in a percentage exceeding 100, that I’m not wrong about the opportunities this instructor suppresses. We could have had an amazing, productive, difficult discussion about the author’s background, her word choices, everything. Instead we sat for 20 minutes and listened to a single person’s interpretation. A person who, at the very least, has never been in the position of the Happy Girls in question, simply because he has never been a teenage girl.
If you’re interested in more of Katherena Vermette’s writings, here is her website, including the link to her latest book, North End Love Songs. In addition, I found Maria Campbell’s writing’s to be particularly interesting, and I may be selectively reading her book Halfbreed in the near future. Please note that both of their writings deal with mature and difficult topics including discrimination, disfunction and abuse.