Friday, February 21, 2014

What poetry summaries leave out

I came out of class this morning joyful after leading a discussion of some poems by e.e. cummings, who once struck me as a lightweight but who seems to get more profound with age. (My age, not his.) Then I looked at some things students had written about cummings and recognized the stylistic hallmarks of the online summary, and I got a little annoyed. First, the very idea of summarizing a poem is ridiculous, since how a poem says is at least as important as what it says. Second, what these summaries say about what these poems say is simply insipid.

Let's look at an example. First, if you haven't seen it in a while, go look at cummings's poem "In Just--" (read it here). Got it? Okay, now here is the entire text of an online summary you can easily find via Google: "The poem In Just by EE Cummings is a poem about the season spring. It talks about how everything is fresh and new. People are happy that the weather is warmer, flowers are blooming, and kids can play outside."

Who would write a poem about that? Okay, maybe I wrote poems like that and maybe I even published one of them, but I was in the third grade at the time and I had not seen the horrors of World War I up close or spent time in a prisoner-of-war camp as cummings did. I do not teach poems written by third-graders and, thankfully, cummings did not write the kind of poem a third-grader would write. Go back to the poem and take a close look at the goat-footed balloon-man. What is he doing in the poem? What is he not doing in the summary? What else is missing from the summary? How about all those odd spaces, fused words, and uneven lines? If space mattered to cummings, shouldn't it matter to us? How is it possible to write anything about this poem without mentioning the typographical elements or the little lame balloon-man? I hear his whistle even now....

I think I helped my students hear that whistle in class today, but I fear for the ones who can't hear the difference between cummings's little lame balloon-man and the insipid online summary of the poem. Pity the busy monster studentunmindful--not!

1 comment:

Bardiac said...

I never know what to make of cummings spacings. "Easter Wings" I get, Cummings not so much. Except the one sonnet that's the political speech thing.