Saturday, August 1, 2009

A. E. Houseman, Immortality, and the Hapless Student Straw Man

In my English class when I was a senior in high school, we read Perrine's Sound and Sense, an introduction to poetry.

One of the poems in that book we had to read was A. E. Houseman's "Is My Team Plowing." The premise of that poem is this: a man has died and is wondering if everyone is so distraught at his death that, functionally, all the people he knew could not get on with their lives. We see in the poem, however, that everything pretty much is going on well without him. In other words, the lesson I take from the poem is that the world will go on without us when we leave it. (While there may be other, closer interpretations of that poem, I believe that mine is plausible and readily apparent from the poem.)

In the Perrine volume, at the end of the poem is a set of questions for classroom discussions. The gist of one of the questions was: "One student wrote a paper saying that "Is My Team Plowing?" proved that A. E. Houseman believed in immortality (in fact he did not). Why was that student wrong?" I don't have the book in front of me, but this quotation represents the gist of the question, along with the knowing assurance that A. E. Houseman did not believe in immortality.

I find this pedagogical technique quite objectionable because it appears to do one of two objectionable things. First, it takes what might superficially be a "plausible misinterpretation" of the poem and makes it into a straw man by positing that some student came up with it. The misinterpretation is "plausible" in the sense that one who has little experience in reading poetry and who gave the poem only a cursory reading might indeed come up with a notion that it endorses the idea of immortality. For example, one of the speakers in the poem is the dead person, speaking from beyond the grave. A superficial reading might lead to the conclusion that the poem evinces some belief in immortality.

The second objectionable thing that this pedagogical technique might be doing is that it takes a real-life effort by a student. This student probably sincerely believed that his or her "plausible misinterpretation" of the poem really proved what he or she thought it did. That student was probably wrong, but the effort was likely sincere.

I think these approaches are objectionable because they set up a "straw man" that compel the discussants to determine what the poem is not, rather than what the poem is. It also sets up the specter of a hapless student who just bumbles along misinterpreting the assignments. One plausible effect of setting up this straw man is to discourage other people who are students from even volunteering their own observations on the poem. (I say "plausible effect" because I don't believe it's an inevitable result, but it is something counterproductive that may come from such a way of framing the question.)

Besides these two approaches that I find objectionable, there is another point about the discussion question that rubs me the wrong way. That's the assurance that Houseman did not believe in immortality. I know very little about the guy and have, indeed, read probably only three of his poems--"Is My Team Plowing?," "Terence, this is stupid stuff," and "To an Athlete Dying Young"--and none of these seem to prove to me that Houseman believed in immortality. I'm also willing to accept that he may have written extensively on the subject, declaring on every page his disbelief in immortality and may have so confided in everyone he met. So far so good.

But we really can't know. Maybe he was lying to everyone, or maybe he had some sort of deathbed conversion.

Or maybe his poetry and other writings evinced a train of thought, a logic, that, if taken to its rightful conclusion, might demonstrate that he did indeed believe in immortality, in spite of himself. Maybe the very act of writing--putting one's words to paper--reflects a belief in the permanence of life or of one's self.

It's this latter possibility that I wonder about. I don't really care whether Houseman believed in immortality. (I am also personally wary of arguments that try to tease a meaning out of one's writings that is contrary to the writer's expressed beliefs.) But perhaps the (possibly fictitious) student wrote what he or she did on the belief that "Is My Team Plowing?" betrayed some understanding and belief in immortality. Maybe that student realized full-well that Houseman was mocking a disposition common to many of us, namely, that the world will be so sad at our passing that it will think long and hard before resuming its rotation along its axis. Maybe the student, being a student and not a fully developed intellectual, may not have had the tools to write clearly or may not have yet learned to make his or her argument precise enough to be argued with, but it's possible the student was sincere and deserved better than this flip criticism.

No comments: