A student wrote on a reading quiz that "this poem set my soul on fire--in a good way," and let's not even think about what it would mean to set one's soul on fire in a bad way. Let's instead focus on the fact that this student gets it.
She gets the poem--her answer to the quiz question was thorough, specific, and illuminating--but she also gets it, the elusive quality that sends me pacing back and forth in front of a classroom reading long lines aloud and trying to make students hear--really hear--the truth and beauty bundled up within the poems and their ability to speak to the deepest part of our being. I tell them that poetry allows poets to say the unsayable and they look at me as if I'm speaking gibberish; I try to get them to see what Allen Ginsberg called "the absolute heart of the poem of life butchered out of their own bodies good to eat a thousand years" and my students look at me as if I've just asked them to bite into a chunk of rotting meat.
I always hope that the literature I teach will spark a fire in someone's soul, but it's an outcome I can't put on the syllabus and don't know how to assess. If only I could hold a thermometer up to students' souls at the beginning of the semester and again at the end and compare the measurements, I'd have solid evidence of the importance of exposing students to great literature. Lacking an accurate soul-fire thermometer, I have to go by what I see: that spark in a student's eyes as we discuss the poem, the sudden surge of interest in a particular author, or the occasional comment on a course evaluation or a quiz.
But even if I could provide objective evidence of measurable impacts on students' souls, I fear that the assessment people would pooh-pooh the data or that the general education task force would remind me that we're not in the business of setting students' souls on fire. What good will a fired-up soul do in the World of Work? Why, possessing a functioning soul might even impede students' career opportunities! Souls demand care and maintenance, which could distract from career goals, so maybe we would better serve our students by stomping out their soul-fires and sending them forth soulless, free of the need to nurture the interior life.
So it's good to know that once in a while a student gets it, that the experience of reading a poem that some find unintelligible or annoying or offensive or maybe not even very poetic can spark a fire deep inside that will burn long after the student has left my class. The poet spoke and the student heard and now our world will share a little more heat, a little more light.