When I was seven and my sister was four, we played school. I taught reading and writing lessons and gave tests. I especially enjoyed writing the tests, then correcting them.
This was probably because I was being given tests at school. We had just moved to Washington from Paris, where I had attended a Montessori school. It is my recollection that in Montessori school they avoid giving tests. Now I was going to a bilingual school in which they delighted in giving tests. So I administered some to my sister.
At that school they gave tests in math that were also in French. This was because all of our classes were in English one day and then French the next.
My French, at that time, was pretty good for an American. But it wasn’t that good because I was also being tutored on Saturdays by the mother of a friend who actually was French. This teacher also delighted in giving tests, especially dictation.
I will not bore you with a description of the dioramas of the solar system we were forced to make in science class. All of the classes were taught by the same teacher, except for sports, art, and music. The American teacher would teach science, math, reading, spelling, etc. and then the French teacher would teach math, grammar, reading, etc.
I wonder if there is still such an emphasis on test-taking in elementary schools.
I do not know any children who go to an elementary school, such as the one across the street from my house.
Around that time I developed a particular affection for a room at the Museum of Natural History that contained a number of drawers in which were collections of bones, shells, feathers, coral, preserved animals, nuts, seeds, etc.
The longer a poem is, the less perfect it is likely to be.
It is hard to resist being didactic, when one has been teaching and going to class and writing papers for a number of years. You feel that you are supposed to do something with the knowledge you have acquired. You may even feel that you “understand” literature. You have thoughts that you want to share with others.
“No ideas but in things” was not new in 1944 when Williams wrote it, or even in the 1880s when Walter Pater was saying it more long-windedly, some might say more eloquently but perhaps less memorably. The problem was that Ezra Pound was saying “Make it new” and Williams thought what he was saying was new and so he said it was. Spring was new and still is. But the other thing has been known to scholars at least since Aristotle’s Poetics, and poets knew it long before that. Homer embodied the gods and human emotions in an artifact of sound that survived in its original form because humans could not get it out of their minds—a mesh of metaphor and image and music. You would not forget Odysseus once you had met him.
Perhaps poets especially needed to be reminded that poetry should “not mean, but be” in 1926 when Archibald MacLeish said it in his beautiful poem. The public wanted to read novels, and there was, as there are now, plenty of bad verse to object to. Though the public was not reading poetry, it was now possible to publish poetry in any number of small, “movement” magazines. A tiny number of initiates undertook to save poetry from the mass of Philistines whose taste for prose, nurtured on newspapers and narrative fiction, threatened to elevate mediocre verse over the technically brilliant but hopelessly obscure productions of true artists.
But I have already argued something like this in a paper on Walter Pater and Matthew Arnold, and in a poem about my cat Jeoffry. In fact I was developing this theory in a paper on Henry James, and in a paper on Emily Dickinson’s idea of God. From now on there will be no more papers.
In a didactic poem there is typically little embodiment of ideas in things. But things can be brought into the poem from life. Without these importations a reader’s imagination is unlikely to remain stimulated.
A didactic poem is primarily intended to be read, rather than listened to. Short lines are more likely to hold a reader’s attention. That is the reason people prefer listening to poetry than fiction, it is less fatiguing.
At what point is it no longer poetry?
In the course of telling one’s ideas about Emily Dickinson and Henry James and Walter Pater, if one should casually mention that the snow is melting in patches on the lawn, this would not be encouraging the prurient curiosity about a writer’s private life that Denise Levertov objects to in her essay “Biography and the Poet.” The snow would feel cool and refreshing after all those unembodied ideas. The passages about my elementary school will be found to be more interesting than the analysis of poetry.
For this reason there should also be poems that are purely thing.