Krzystof finds poetry dull. He resists every assignment, writes dull rhymes and defends his apathetic position with the statement: “All poetry is dull and useless.”
We are discussing poetry.
In our previous class, we had read Robert Burns’ “To a mouse” and Pablo Neruda’s “To a foot from its child”. They had been placed side by side in the required textbook, perhaps by the thematic link of “compassion”. Our ensuing conversation never got below the surface. The next page in the textbook happened to be an excerpt from Eli Wiesel’s “Night”. It was his horrifying account of the prisoners’ death march from Auschwitz to points unknown. Wiesel’s father was with him on this march, at his physical and spiritual limit. Wiesel had to bear witness to his suffering, but also his nagging animal instinct to survive at his father’s expense. To not feel.
“You know, Wiesel did a very brave thing in writing about his experience,” I opined in my typical fashion. “In many ways, it took more bravery than that required to survive the holocaust.”
Krzystof was first to be provoked. He may have been in the 9th grade, but that did not stop him from entering the ring with me as a peer.
“That’s impossible Mr. Krasner,” he said. “Do you know what it takes to survive the holocaust?”
“No, I don’t.”
I tried to find words to meet this impossible subject.
“Instinct, will. Luck. Courage, yes,” I said. “But in returning to that horror, by writing, Wiesel was intentionally revisiting something he likely blocked out while living it. In order to survive, he had to not feel. In order to write, he had to feel.”
“Feeling takes bravery?”
I looked at the girls for cues.
The class as a whole was divided. Krzystof led the skeptics’ brigade, comprised of himself and his buddy-buddy Maciek. Violetta and Patrick formed another pair. They had experienced hardship in their short lives and expressed mature ideas, Patrick tolerant, Violetta embittered. Juhi and Diksha contrasted them with more conformist views. Both were good and rule abiding pupils from Indian backgrounds. That left Hanna and Pawel, our aloof dreamers. Their variant was that Hanna seemed to be processing deep thoughts, while Pawel surfed his consciousness randomly, much like an internet browser.
“Yes,” I answered, “feeling takes bravery. Writing takes bravery.”
“But all he’s doing is sitting in a chair,” Krzystof replied. “What’s this writer’s name?”
“You can’t tell me that sitting and thinking takes more bravery than waking up at Auschwitz.”
“Well, when you put it like that. But it takes stopping in one place to face what you have lived.”
“What have we lived?”
“You have lived something. Maybe not something in which you openly face death. But you have lived, and rather, you are living something. You are something.”
“What are we?”
The class laughed reflexively. They understood my sense of humor, but could not easily tell when I was joking and when I was sincere.
“Sure, poets. Pawel’s a poet.”
Pawel woke up at the sound of his name.
Meanwhile, Patrick smiled with subtle ease. He was two years older than his classmates, held back due a combination of family moves and occasional delinquency. He showed me his poems in the past, or song lyrics. The rest of the group had never experienced poetry before, studied a few poems perhaps, but had never written one of their own. They were typical 9th graders.
“I want you to take the theme of “Night” and apply it to your own world. In a poem.”
“What?” Krzystof moaned loudest.
“I don’t mean Wiesel’s “Night”. I mean your own. The word and all its connotations. Night.”
“You want us to write about death camps sir?” Pawel asked innocently.
“I don’t get it,” Juhi said, a stickler for instructions. “None of us have been part of this kind of evil.”
“Speak for yourself,” Violetta mumbled.
Juhi tried to interpret if she was joking.
“You don’t have to have experienced evil,” I interceded. “I just want you to have some structure going into your first poem. How many of you have written a poem? I mean from your own inspiration.”
Nobody raised his or her hands. Not even Patrick, who remained slouched in his chair.
“I want you to write your own Night. Whatever that means to you. We are not holocaust survivors. But if you allow your imagination to roam a bit, we are survivors. Think about what our ancestors had to go through to make our birth even possible. It’s an incredible chain of events, all of us, dating back to Adam.”
“Eve,” Violetta put in.
“And Eve. I was getting to her.”
“You know,” she continued, “there are studies that show how life evolved from a single female sex.”
I contemplated whether to take the bait.
“You mean it’s not true that Eve was fashioned from Adam’s rib?”
“Mr. Krasner, there is a lot you need to learn.”
“Well that’s true. Anyway, this isn’t a biology course. It’s English.”
“Did Adam and Eve speak English?” Pawel asked.
Krzystof and Maciek delighted in the question. We were heading down the broad road of digression, far away from the teacher’s intended lesson. They suddenly became energized and creative.
“Yea sir, did they speak English?” Krzystof asked. “And if so, who taught them? Amphibians?”
“Amphibians? Amphibians? They had no language. If they did, they would not have been so confused about where to settle down.”
I noticed from the corner of my eyes Diksha, Juhi, Hanna, Patrick all laughing together with bright pearly teeth. It was my sign that we had achieved something.
“Maybe they did speak sir,” Krzystof continued, “only each one had their own language. So no one understood each other.”
“Each one had his or her own language. That would be proper English. English people! I don’t know how we got on this evolutionary tangent, but it fits. Somehow, we nine people are alive in this little classroom in a corner of Kabaty forest, we walk on two feet, breathe oxygen, read stories about other people from another time marching through the snow until they die…we feel something. And we write poems. We write poems. Don’t you see?”
They did not see.
“There is something in us that wills survival. That survives Night.”
“I don’t understand sir,” Juhi said.
“He wants us to write something,” Krzystof deadpanned.
“That’s right. Write this down in your journal. Don’t ask who taught us how to write or why some people are left handed and others right. Just know that this is essential to our survival.”
I wrote on the board. Write Your Night.
Juhi shook her head while copying it dutifully. The bell rang and like a strong wave my students flooded into the halls.
And now they had reassembled before me. A new day, but everything much the same. I sat behind my desk contemplating how to begin. Krzystof and Maciek leaned back in their chairs in the last row. Pawel sat one space removed from them, eyes drawn to his ipad. Hanna sat nearest the window. Violetta leaned against the wall by the door. Patrick lounged in the front row, legs sprawled out. Juhi and Diksha sat directly in front of me, eyes ahead of them.
“So?” I searched. “Did you write poetry last night?”
They tossed and turned in their beds.
“Did you discover your Night?”
“My point of view hasn’t changed, Mr. Krasner,” Krzystof initiated. “All poetry is dull and useless.”
“Oh Krzys,” Violetta charged, “you’re just dull and useless.”
“Ouch,” I said.
“Speak for yourself,” he finally responded.
“Whatever. It’s my point of view.”
I got up from my chair.
“Krzys,” I said, “if what you say were true, poetry would not have been passed down from generation to generation to generation. It would have died out a long time ago.”
“Many civilizations have done away with poetry,” he replied off hand.
I was thinking, perhaps. The Spartans? Cromwell’s England? The 21st century?
“Name one,” I pressed.
Now that was inspired.
“Great point Krzys!” I seized. “Your view puts you in strange company, don’t you think?”
The boys were now gloating and the girls awakened. Class was beginning.
“So Krzys, by your logic, poetry is actually the antidote to fascism. Why do you think that is?”
“Because it’s useless.”
“Right, like human rights. Free expression. If it’s so useless, why go to such lengths to destroy its influence? Why burn books?”
“Okay, okay, we don’t need to go down this road.”
“Why not? This is my digression. And it’s totally appropriate given Wiesel’s Night.”
Krzystof straightened up, bracing for the coming bout.
“Fascists don’t want people reading poetry, with the exception of a well rhymed national anthem. What do they want their citizens to read?” I asked.
“Do they want them to read?” Violetta questioned rhetorically. “It’s all just propaganda.”
“Why do they only want people to read propaganda?”
“So they’ll be pets.”
“That’s a good way of putting it. Krzys, do you agree.”
“I was only joking around Mr. Krasner.”
“Were you? I think there was something in your instinctual response. Why do fascists want people to read only “state” literature?”
“Because fascists don’t want people to think too much.”
“So it sounds like you’ve got everything reversed. It’s propaganda that is dull and useless. Poetry must be the opposite.”
Krzystof shuffled in his chair and tried to say what was really on his mind.
“But really Mr. Krasner, nobody reads it anymore,” he said. “I mean poetry. Look at us. Do you think we’re going home to read poetry? I mean if you weren’t here.”
“But I am here!”
“You’re not on my screen!”
He pulled his iphone from his pocket and shoved it in my direction.
“He’s right there Mr. Krasner,” Violetta joined. “The fascists didn’t need to kill poetry. The screen already has.”
I was suddenly in a position of weakness.
“It’s true Mr. Krasner,” Maciek piled on. “The only place poetry lives is in English class, in high school English class. You’re forcing it on us.”
“That’s not evolution,” Violetta quipped. “You do know about natural selection, don’t you?”
“Yes, Violetta. And I’m naturally selecting what is good for you!”
“Propaganda!” Krzystof replied on cue.
I looked to Juhi and Diksha for help. They were quietly waiting for the lesson to begin.
“Poetry’s never on the television, never a scene in a movie, never in the newspaper,” Maciek was rolling, “and if it’s in a blog, it will never get more than 100 views.”
“It’s emo,” Pawel put in from his planet.
“I remember a movie that featured poetry,” I finally argued back.
“Shakespeare in Love.”
“Okay, okay, strike that.”
“Shakespeare,” Violetta could not withhold her contempt. “You know he didn’t even make up any of his own stories? They’re all stolen. And his language is overblown.”
“And he was a woman.”
“Okay, listen. We’re getting off topic again.”
“We’re always off topic!” Krzystof said.
“Where did we leave off?”
“Poetry, emo. I get it. You know what’s funny Krzys? You are conditioned to believe that writing poetry is emo. Especially romaaaantic poetry. But how old are you?”
“I’m 15 sir. I’ll be 16 in May.”
“Right, so in about three years you are going to be on someone’s doorstep, stooping over a piece of paper, drunk with love, and striving to find the most poetic expressions. You are my one love, my heart’s core, its burning fire!”
I was emoting to Diksha, since she sat closest to me.
“Mr. Krasner!” Juhi intervened. Diksha was blushing.
“What are you talking about?” Krzystof asked.
“Love poems. Dripping oozing love poems. It’s a right of passage boys.”
Krzystof, Maciek and Pawel formed a wall of stoicism.
“Sorry boys. You will be writing them, pretty soon, whether you like it or not.”
“It’s not the only way to a woman’s heart,” Krzystof replied, insecurely.
The girls cornered him.
“You know others?” Violetta asked. “This should be interesting.”
“Yea, how about it Krzys,” Hanna said, her first words of the lesson.
“No, just drop it.”
“See? You’re afraid to admit it. Anyway, I just thought of another movie with poetry. And not emo.”
“Yea, what is it.”
“It’s based on the life of Charles Bukowski. He was an American poet. Lived in bars. Wrote crude poems, love poems, sports poems, bar fight poems.”
“Why don’t we read him?”
“Because it’s R rated.”
“You mean sex and stuff?!”
“And horse racing.”
“Come on Mr. Krasner, why don’t we read him?!”
“So you are interested? Listen, there is an evolution to things.”
“Oh, back to evolution….”
“With Mr. Krasner naturally selecting.”
“That’s right. Me and my sinister band of English teachers. First we start with the well intentioned textbook. Pablo Neruda. Robert Burns. Shakespeare. You won’t find Bukowski in any anthologies. Not until maybe freshman year of college, as an American literature student.”
“I guess we won’t read him then,” Krzystof said.
“I guess not,” I concurred, settling into a silence. “But he is read. Not like RK Rowlings. But he is read, today.”
They did not seem convinced.
“Ok,” I returned to my desk. “What you’re all saying is true enough. People don’t read much poetry. It’s not in the cultural diet. But why should we be so complacent about it? Technology has changed us. It makes us sit back and watch, conditions us to be constantly entertained. We say informed, but really it’s entertainment. Poetry is not very entertaining.”
“No, it’s not.”
“It wants us to feel.”
“To think deeeeeeply,” Krzystof mocked.
“You know what else wants us to think deeeeeeeply?” Violetta asked.
She laughed furtively to her own joke.
“Well, now we’ve got poetry in the same camp as Freud. Another antidote to fascism. Can you imagine Hitler’s therapy sessions?”
No one wished to fuel this digression.
“It’s only for people who like to think about their problems,” Krzystof said.
“Really, it’s true. That’s why I say it’s useless. It’s a waste of time. At least if you’re happy.”
“Are you happy Krzys?”
He took his time.
“That’s a deep question.”
“A deeeeep question. So eliminate it. Shall we just eat some candy? Does anyone have a butterscotch?”
Juhi and Diksha looked confused. Hanna was chuckling. Pawel looked in his bag.
“Mr. Krasner. I just thought of something,” Maciek said. “What if we put poetry on candy wrappers. Do you think then people would read it?”
“What a delicious question. It depends.”
“On the country. For example, in France or Spain, or Italy or Greece, I can see it working. They already value poetry. But in America, I’m afraid it would appear as a marketing gimmick…our primary form of literature, sadly.”
“So you agree then it’s not it’s not just the Nazis who’ve done away with poetry!”
Krzystof egged me on with his expression.
“You got me there. Fascism and America in one camp…” I considered. “But I also said Charles Bukowski is read. A movie was made about him. Isn’t that proof that he matters? If someone deigned to make a film about him, he must matter. And he was American, a poet, and contemporary.”
“So what have you proved?”
“Nothing. America is a contradiction. And so are you.”
“I’m not American.”
“You’re human Krzys. Maciek?”
“Will you please punch Krzys in the arm?”
He did so without hesitation.
Krzystof punched back. The two locked arms and almost fell out of their chairs.
“Hold on! Hold on! That’s enough.”
“You started it.”
“You started it!”
“I started it,” I jumped in.
They settled down, some blood entering their faces.
“What was that all about?” Pawel asked.
“Being human I think.”
I was busy picking up the notebooks that fell off their desks.
“Krzys, did you feel something when Maciek punched you?” I asked while returning to the safety of my desk.
“Yes, I felt the deeeeep desire to punch him back.”
“Because? He deserved it!”
“Because he violated my sovereignty. He attacked without warning. That’s war.”
“I was just following orders,” Maciek said.
“A Nazi,” Violetta wisecracked.
“Because it hurt!” I answered my own question.
“You felt something. First you felt something Krzys. I know your mind processes things rather quickly, like having your sovereignty violated and all that, but really you felt something. You felt pain.”
“Not really. It was a weak punch.”
“Should I hit him again Mr. Krasner?”
“God,” Violetta refereed. “You’re just letting him play games with you! He’s a natural selector and you guys are just these ignorant apes.”
That was a bad idea. Krysztof and Maciek leaped out of their chairs and lumbered around the classroom while dragging their knuckles on the floor.
“Ooof-ooof,” they mimicked in simian delight.
“This is great,” I narrated the scene. “Somewhere between these two (I pointed at the apes) and these two (I pointed at Juhi and Diksha) is a great evolutionary secret. Somewhere along the road a light went on. Apes feel pain, animals feel pain. But by what measure do they reflect upon it? And not just pain, but all the other sensations that enter our consciousness.”
“You’re trying to make a point from this,” Krzystof now straightened his back in the middle of the classroom.
“What happened Krzys? How come you’re no longer an ape?”
“Because I…” but he didn’t know where to go. He sat back down. Maciek ooofed his way to his own chair.
“He’s still an ape Mr. Krasner,” Violetta couldn’t resist.
“What makes him human?”
“Some people remain apes.”
“You mean that some people just keep hitting and hitting back when they’re hit?”
“Well, the Jews didn’t hit back.”
There was a dead silence, as when the mind blacks out after being uppercut to the chin. I had to shake off the unintended sting.
“In Night. They were more like sheep,” Violetta finished.
“Yes, they were. The instinct was to survive. I guess sheep have a survival instinct that says, don’t provoke. The odds are against us.”
She accepted the rationale begrudgingly.
“And not all were sheep,” I countered suddenly. “Are you familiar with the various uprisings and attempts of sabotage in the camps? In Auschwitz, a group of prisoners managed to blow up one of the crematoria. There was a girl involved. Her name was Rose. Or Rosa. She was about your age. She helped smuggle explosives.”
“What happened to her?” she asked eagerly.
“She was killed. Along with a lot of uninvolved sheep.”
“I’m lost sir,” Pawel said.
The pot was stirring.
“Krzys, I need you to think now. Can you tell us what’s going on?”
“I’m not sure myself. You’re definitely naturally selecting.”
“Maybe. But a lot of things are just happening too, by instinct. We still have that animal layer with us. It made you punch Maciek and get up from your chair to be an ape. And it has led to some insightful remarks.”
“He’s getting us back on track. He’s trying to reflect, which is what I’m asking you to do.”
“Aha, you mean this is the human part, right?” he connected the dots suspiciously. “This is your big idea? That humans reflect?”
“Can you do it?”
“I’m not sure that’s possible,” Violetta provoked.
He grimaced and entered the fray.
“First you asked me to punch Maciek. No, I mean you asked Maciek to punch me. Because I said something about being human. Or not human. So Maciek punched me and I punched him back, naturally. Then you broke it up and Violetta claimed that we were apes. So we acted like apes until Violetta said that the Jews didn’t fight back during the war. So we sat down.”
Violetta broke the standoff.
“I think you want Krzys to say that we have feelings. You wanted Krzys to feel pain, so he could say, aha, I’m a human being! I feel! But it’s a tough mountain to climb Mr. Krasner. He prefers to punch back, and be sarcastic.”
“I thought what made us human was being able to use our thumbs?” Pawel said, possibly in jest.
The class erupted, almost in tears.
“Are you guys seriously studying evolution the class just before mine?”
They continued rolling in laughter.
“Anything to get you off track Mr. Krasner,” Juhi said, trying to encourage me.
I decided not to resist Pawel’s absurdist turn from heavy to light-hearted.
“You know,” I thought aloud, “without the thumb, we would not have been equipped to make tools. Isn’t that what took us out of the trees? And then to make a tool requires thought. So it could be that the evolution of the thumb led to the evolution of thought.”
“So because of the thumb we have poetry?”
“No, because of pain we have poetry.”
“Thumbs are useless.”
I sat down and twiddled my thumbs.
“I’m joking,” he consoled, “but I mean that talking about thumbs, thinking about thumbs is useless.”
“What about forming a fist? And punching someone with all your force, feeling the muscle and then the bone of their shoulder. Feeling the pain in your own hand, the soreness, the knuckles, the aliveness! Actually, Charles Bukowski wrote poems about this.”
“He wrote an insightful poem about the fist fight from the provoker’s point of view. That it is really a desire for contact. For a breakdown of the immense distance between two people. Street brawlers are really just full of affection.”
“That’s kind of true,” Violetta said.
Krzystof and Maciek processed thoughtfully.
“9th grade boys should know. You guys are constantly punching each other in the arms, wrestling each other to the ground. It’s just an acceptable form of male affection.”
“Maybe Krzys could write a love poem about Maciek,” Diksha shyly teased.
I was impressed by her leap into comic territory. It inspired me.
“You know, we’ve all thrown punches and we’ve all received them. The loving kind and the hateful kind. We use our thumbs to hold a spoon in the morning, to handle a bar of soap, to take care of ourselves. And then we use them to form a fist, or an embrace. We have all kinds of tangled thoughts connected to our original feelings and sensations, from the ordinary to the intense. We collect them in our memories. They keep adding up. Then our dreams give us information too. Strange subconscious riddles. It can be too much handle, so we cut out whatever doesn’t fit. Whatever feels unknown or uncomfortable. Whatever is dark or delinquent. In order to survive.”
“I thought you said writing poetry was how we survive?”
“I did? Oh yea. But I also said that life is a contradiction.”
“You can say anything.”
“Mr. Krasner?” Diksha inquired, “does poetry only come from the negative experiences? The stuff that we block out in order to live?”
“That’s a great question. So many students complain that poetry is depressing. Maybe a large chunk of it does come from those harder experiences that have no real place in day to day conversation. They just stick in the corners of our minds.”
The class was softening.
“But to go back to Shakespeare, if you don’t mind Violetta, the original muse for poetry was likely love.”
“So it can be happy?”
“Of course Diksha. Just like life. Whatever makes you feel. One minute you’re gay and laughing. The next minute hostile, angry.”
“Who said anything about being gay?” Pawel asked defensively.
“Gay, happy. That’s what it means.”
“I thought it meant….”
“Yes, well even so. One minute you’re straight and the next you’re gay. How about that? It happens.”
“Wo….too much information Mr. Krasner.”
“Sexuality is a mysterious and lovely and sometimes dangerous grey area. Love’s another. Friendship and rivalry another. Politics and belief yet another. Life and death is a great matter. Being a reflective human being is complicated Krzys. Of course we can get rid of reflection, be like Nazis, and eliminate literature. But that’s a rejection of life. Too simple. It’s more real to say that we are amphibians. One minute you say the sea, the next land! You say that poetry is dull and useless and three years later you’re writing love poems to a hot 17 year old named Casandra.”
Hanna looked at me dreamily. Patrick was relatively amused. Pawel was stuck on the idea that I questioned his sexuality.
“I didn’t say all that,” he voiced under a smile. “I just said it is dull and useless.”
“And that is an absolute statement that allows for no exploration at all. A closed mind. A fascist.”
“I don’t think you need poetry to explore.”
“I never said you did. But poetry does explore. And mostly, it explores sensitivity. Maybe this is why you stop the process before it starts.”
“I wrote my poem!”
“You did? Well, go ahead already. Share it.”
“It’s about time,” Juhi said with exasperation.
Krzystof flipped through his notebook, looking for the right page. His poem was not distinguished from his daily note-taking. Once he found it, he read as he knew he were holding something, well, dull and useless.
“Night,” he coughed, “is bright with moon. And over to soon.”
I widened my eyes. He widened his.
“See. I told you.”
“Jesus Krzys, you’re not even trying!” Violetta charged.
“I found a chocolate Mr. Krasner,” Pawel said. He pulled it from his bag and offered it to me.
Krzys and Maciek fell into a crash landing position.
“Come on, take it Mr. Krasner,” Violetta now chimed in. “You have to admit, chocolate is better than poetry.”
I took the chocolate. It was a Hershey’s Kiss.
“Why does it have to be one or the other?” I asked while giving it a good chew.
“What do you mean now?” Krzystof asked while choking on his breath.
“In this little chocolate kiss, not a real kiss mind you, we have the secret to contemporary culture.”
I swallowed the rest of the chocolate and expressed a sonorous state of glee.
“Wow, must be good,” Violetta said.
“That’s right. Feels good, and so easy! It’s called instant gratification. And that is the foundation of our lives right now. You know, consumerism.”
They did not feel like taking the socio-political turn. I helped them out.
“That’s what this wrapper is. Consumerism.”
I inspected it to make sure it had no poetry on the inside.
“I hungry,” I improv’d. “I want chocolate. I buy chocolate. I eat chocolate. I happy!”
They took in the performance with mixed reviews.
“But that’s not all,” I moaned. “I sad. I don’t know what make me happy. I fat and ugly! Oh, I buy shoes. News shoes! Sleek, lovely legs. I beautiful! I happy!”
“Mr. Krasner, you’re crazy,” Juhi said.
“He’s not far off,” Violetta commented.
“Why can’t we have both?”
“What’s the both?” Violetta asked.
“Chocolates and poetry.”
I held the Hershey’s Kiss wrapper before them as Evidence A.
“Chocolates are a metaphor for consumerism. So is technology. The screen. Remember? You’re not on my screen Mr. Krasner!!”
I snatched the smart-phone from in front of Juhi. Everyone had one. Evidence B.
“Why is it technology or poetry, not both?”
“Maybe it is both,” Violetta asserted.
“No, it’s not. You said at the beginning of the discussion that the screen has killed off poetry. You made a direct correlation. We don’t have to burn books any more. We have technology!”
“But books are read over the internet.”
“Ok, we’re exaggerating, of course. Books are not dead. But poetry? For the sake of Krzys’s argument, let’s keep the Nazis and America in one camp. Let’s call it fascist consumerism. Maybe the fascist and the marketer have the same goal.”
“They do,” he replied coherently. “World domination.”
“But they take very different approaches, don’t they?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, one is hard and the other soft. The fascist uses fear and force to spread his gospel. Patriotism, national pride. But the marketer operates at a level underneath nationality and politics. Pure self-interest. Self gratification. There’s no need for patriotism when one’s real needs are pleasure and comfort.”
The class pondered with an affected guilt.
“Quick pleasure. Now pleasure. With no effort pleasure!”
“Ok, calm down Mr. Krasner.”
“It’s not true?”
“No, it’s true,” Maciek concurred. “We’re a lazy lot.”
“No, it’s not true,” Juhi retorted. “You’re a lazy lot.”
“Thank God it’s not so black and white. But Juhi, let’s just say that Maciek speaks for this overwhelming trend of technology and consumerism, that without cultural defenses, like the kind you have in India, this is the way we’re heading. Away from active, towards inactive. Away from creativity, towards entertainment. Fascist consumerism.”
“I guess,” she considered. “But I don’t have to like it.”
“But you do like it! Why do you keep your iphone so close to your fingers? Do you want me to keep it for the rest of the day?”
I dangled it in front of her like a cherry.
“In both fascism and consumerism, which type of citizen is preferred: strong or weak?”
“Weak, of course,” Violetta answered.
Juhi snatched her phone.
“More than weak,” Krzystof now collaborated. “They prefer slaves!”
“Would you agree with this portrait then? Our screen-based society wants us to work hard all day, be addicted to a thousand different products, watch TV all the time, eat at restaurants instead of cooking at home, watch movies on the couch, be addicted to the computer, spend a lot of money on gas and electricity, be eternally bored and always reaching for a credit card…”
“Is that us?” Pawel asked.
“I don’t know. Is it?”
“I don’t know,” Diksha said in a modest smiling voice.
“Yes Diksha, go ahead.”
“I just mean, is that America really?”
I inhaled sharply.
“Well, that’s just one place. In India, it’s not all like that. It’s more traditional. We have technology and love it, sure. But it’s not like everyone is addicted to it. Kids still play cricket outside. Families still have dinner together and talk.”
“Do people read poetry?”
“Well….no, not really. They watch films, like everywhere.”
“That’s more instant, wouldn’t you agree?”
“Yea, it’s modern culture. But we still read the classics. We have to study them in school. We have poetry competitions. We have to memorize like half of Rabi Takur!” she sighed with her archetypical stress.
“So the only time you encounter poetry is with the purpose of memorizing it for a competition?”
“No wonder films and chocolates are preferred.”
“It’s the same in Polish schools sir,” Maciek said. “Every student has to memorize Pan Tadeusz before they’re 15. My parents had to, their parents had to. It’s not fun at all.”
“So when you hear the word poetry, you think ‘have to’. You never think, ‘like to’?”
“Well, you’re doing the same thing aren’t you? Forcing us to—“
“I’m not forcing you to memorize a national poet! I’m not even asking you to read poems. I’m asking you to write poetry. To respond to literature by making literature! It’s not some kind of science to study out of a textbook. You’re not separate from it. Not separate from Rabi Takur or Adam Mickiewicz. The same creative force inside them is inside you.”
“But have you read Pan Tadeusz sir?” Krzystof asked.
“I tried. When I first moved here, I thought it would be a good way to assimilate. I even memorized the first line: Oh Litwo, moj oczyzna zdrowie!”
“That’s not it,” Krzystof scolded through his laughter. “It’s Litwo! Oczyzna moja. Ty jestes jak zdrowie!”
“And the rest?
“Trust me sir, it’s dull and useless.”
“Alas!” I shrieked. “We have gotten to the source of your biased attitude! You don’t mean that all poetry is dull and useless. You were merely traumatized by poetry at a young age, in the form of Pan Tadeusz, which was taught to you in the wrong way! Memorize. Recite. And by no means enjoy!”
“He needs therapy sir,” Violetta quipped.
“This is it!”
“Mr. Krasner,” Maciek defended his cohort, “if poetry wasn’t so dull, schools wouldn’t have to force us to memorize it. We would read it freely.”
“That’s true. And I think given some more life experience, some more punches and kisses, you may gravitate towards poetry. Good poetry. Because there is good and bad, in everything.”
“When you’re ready.”
There was a pause.
“But I don’t want to trample over Pan Tadeusz like it is some useless carcass from the past. We should study poetry too. Not everything that is good for you is chosen freely. If you had your way Maciek, the education system would be based on video games and gambling.”
He nodded right along.
“Family meals would consist of take-out pizza and no one would ever clean the bathroom,” I continued.
“Maybe we should keep the bathroom messy,” Patrick said, still reclining.
“Patrick! You’re here?”
“Yes sir, it’s getting interesting.”
“No one cleans the bathroom at your house?” Juhi questioned.
“I have my own bathroom. I don’t like to clean it.”
“And this is good for you?”
“No, of course not. It’s real.”
She shook her head in disgust.
“Sir,” Krzystof perked up. “Are you trying to say that reading poetry is like cleaning the toilet? Do you really think you’re going to get us to like poetry that way?”
“Oops. My bad. You got me. Listen, I’m not feeding you your vegetables! If you don’t like poetry that’s fine! Don’t eat it! I don’t want you to like it at all!”
“I want you to write it!”
“But no one writes poetry anymore.”
“That’s not true…”
Patrick spoke up again. He even sat up in his chair.
“I’m sorry, but that’s not true.”
He pulled out from his bag a sheet of paper in various folds.
“I write poetry,” he said.
“Our savior,” I extolled. “Did you write your Night?”
“And you will read it?”
He pulled his legs under him and began to read in a cool disaffected voice. It was just a murmur at first and I had to stop him after three lines and ask him to start over, with a higher volume setting.
“So, it is night,” he began again. “The dead of night. All I see is snow covered plains, not a tree or hill in sight. I’m walking, dragging my leg. I don’t know why it pains me. But it’s blight. I’m looking for a sign, something like a fork in the road. Smoke from a chimney. A neon light. But nah. The sky’s the land and it’s all fright. I’m heading straight into the sea. No one around knows me. I don’t know me. Finally, a star set against the black night, a rose I see, a black rose alone on the white. I drag my leg towards it, eagerly. I want to know what it all means. When I get close enough to see, I bend down to pick it. But the rose picks me. The thorns catch my fingers. I begin to bleed. Thick red blood spills into the snow. I fall down onto my knees. Does anyone know I’m here? I hold the rose close to me. There were no thorns there, none I could see.”
Patrick dropped the paper down to his desk and kicked his legs back out again. Krzystof held a “not bad” expression. Maciek too. Hanna, Juhi and Diksha all appeared impressed, as they had never met this Patrick before.
“The class poet,” I affirmed.
Violetta had angled brows, still processing.
“But I don’t get it,” she addressed him. “Did you pick the rose from the ground or just hold it?”
“Wait, wait,” I interrupted, “he doesn’t have to answer that. The poet is not here. The poem speaks for itself. What did you imagine?”
“It’s not clear.”
“Maybe by design. It’s good to leave space for the reader to interpret. What did you imagine?”
“I imagined that he was lost, lonely, and in a strange place. And that the rose was a metaphor. A friend. Black, like Patrick.”
“Hm,” he smirked.
“In a white land. That must be Poland. But he wants to pick the rose from the ground and that’s his mistake. It was the picking and taking that made him bleed.”
“Maybe the blood was not his, but that of the rose,” I suggested.
“Maybe the rose was like a disease,” Krzystof got involved. “That’s why it was black. Like death.”
“Not everything that is black is a symbol of death,” I said.
Patrick was amused by the discussion.
“So he goes searching for a friend and finds only death?” Juhi questioned.
“No,” Violetta replied. “I think he found heartbreak. I don’t think it’s as simple as death.”
“Who says death is simple?” Krzystof fired back. He had something new in his voice. Violetta did not wish to fight him.
“It’s just about love,” she asserted. “It’s about being alone, dragging your leg, being surrounded by nothing and hoping to find something. And having your hopes destroyed.”
She bit into her lips, holding them with stubborn will.
“So you would say this is a tragic poem?”
“And you liked it?”
“Yes, I did.”
“I did too,” Juhi said.
The boys didn’t answer.
“But his mistake was reaching for the rose,” Violetta continued her line of thought. “That’s when he felt the thorns. He said there were no thorns. That’s the key to the poem. There weren’t. But he felt them because he tried to pick that rose for himself.”
She again addressed Patrick directly.
“He doesn’t know what love is.”
Patrick raised his hand.
“Sir, can I say something?”
“Yes, as long as it is not about your poem.”
He dropped his hand.
“I’m kidding. Go ahead.”
“The rose is my native soil. And the thorns are inside me.”
And there for a moment sat Patrick, a vulnerable man. You could say he was naked.
“Krzys, did you like the poem?” I asked after a pause.
“It was alright,” he admitted. “I would still choose the chocolate.”
“I know you would. I’m not so different. But you have to admit, that doesn’t take much courage. Patrick, what he just did demonstrated real manhood. He’s not afraid to feel.”
“Sir?” Juhi could no longer wait, “can we read our poems too?”
“Of course, of course. Please share.”
Juhi and Diksha were the only others who completed the assignment. The class sat back and received their distinct voices, Juhi cutting argumentative turns, concealing her anger in favor of an idealized joy, Diksha speaking in maternal and deliberate wholes. There was a little silence before and after each voice. The classroom had a tonified air.
“Why don’t we do this more often?” I asked. “It’s very pleasant in the room.”
They did not disagree.
“Patrick took us here. And Juhi and Diksha. It’s like we’re more human now. We’re much more than we pretend to be. If only we undress a bit.”
“Their poems gave us a glimpse of their true selves.”
“And mine sir?” Krzystof asked skeptically.
“You said yourself, yours was boring.”
“Because it wasn’t your true voice. It was borrowed nursery rhyme stuff. You didn’t have the confidence to really write. To face your life and undress it.”
“Not everyone is a poet.”
“Not everyone is an astronaut,” I corrected. “You were gifted with a tongue and imagination, as well as anyone else. You don’t get a degree in it. The truth is Krzys, you’re just resisting poetry. Look at the resistance you’ve put up this whole class! No, you don’t dislike poetry. Hanna…..now she sincerely dislikes it. She hasn’t said a word!”
Hanna, caught off guard, tried to find her words.
“Did you write your night, Hanna?”
“No sir. I was just, busy. I wanted to. I really wanted to. But it didn’t happen,” she said flustered. “It’s like everything has to be right. I didn’t find the right mood. I want to try again. I’m inspired now. I’ll do the next one.”
“The next one. So you guys want a next one?”
“Yes,” the girls affirmed.
“Why not,” they conceded.
“You mean it, really? You’d like to write poetry?”
“Don’t make it so painful sir.”
“But you know how much I value pain.”
“What’s the topic sir?” Maciek joked. “The Black Death?”
“How about dull and useless?” Violetta suggested.
“Why don’t we just pick our own topic.”
“Good idea. You’re ready. You have all weekend to work on this one. And during next class, we will have another reading. I won’t talk so much. I promise.”
“But we can talk about the poems, like we did today. No textbooks needed.”
“And you think at some point we will start reading poetry, you know on our own?” Krzystof asked.
“I don’t know. Does it matter?”
There was more he wanted to say.
“I understand why people don’t read poetry, trust me Krzys. I’m more with you than against you. I don’t read that much poetry anymore.”
“I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t admit that. No, I’ve been conditioned on the same instant gratification as you. I had a teacher once who said poetry is taking the medicine straight.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means that most of the arts are a kind of medicine, in that they help us see ourselves in a deeper light. But they also have a second component that helps the medicine go down. For example, theatre and film and novels take us through a plot and resolution. A climax. This is easy to get into. Most of you read for plot more so than theme. Poetry is mostly theme.”
“People still read of course. Mostly page-turners. Poetry’s not really a page turner. Poetry’s not even a page!”
“Not Pan Tadeusz.”
“I know, not Homer either. It was another time. But as a genre, poems today are not designed to keep you occupied. They stop the mind. Sometimes I need to be on vacation, in some strange town before I can start reading poetry again. When my mind is like the sea.”
“Polish poetry is not like the sea sir,” Krzystof said with growing cynicism. “It’s cryptic and difficult. And subversive.”
“And you’re not on the side of that? What about your Polish underground legacy?”
“This is my Polish legacy.”
He held up his iphone.
“That’s too bad.”
“Listen,” he stood up suddenly and paced in the back row. Far down the road from an ape.
“My parents suffered under communism. Their parents suffered during the war. Their parents suffered under the czar.”
The class turned around to watch him.
“My great uncle, he was my grandfather’s brother. They were hiding together in Warsaw during the bombing of the city. You know all about the uprising I hope. They were in a bunker, it was more of an abandoned building. My grandfather went out for a second. I don’t know why, what for. I never got the whole story. Maybe he was passing on a message, or receiving one. But the minute he crossed the road, a bomb destroyed what was left of the building. He came racing back and his brother was dead.”
I said nothing.
“Then my grandfather after the war, he was considered an elite. We come from an old line of military officials. He was a lieutenant I think. He got all his property confiscated by the communists. He lost his title. Lived in a block with no recognition whatsoever, like an erased person. That’s my Polish legacy.”
“Krzys, you have the topic for your next poem. You have many poems inside you. Go ahead, get started. Don’t be afraid.”
“Who’s afraid? It’s just that no one wants to return to any of that. We’ve suffered enough. My generation just wants to have a normal life. We want to have a house and a car and things.”
“What you had in America growing up. That’s what we want.”
“At what expense?”
“Why does it have to have a cost?”
“Every moral choice asks for a toll. This normal life you speak of seems to mean to not feel what is uncomfortable. That’s not exactly what your grandparents wanted.”
“How do you know?”
“Because I talked to them.”
“I’m old. At least I’m older than you. And I have my own family horror stories, not unsimilar to Eli Wiesel’s. Yes, it was important for my grandparents and parents to move on from that. But neglect? No, that is not what people in the war died for.”
“We can still enjoy our lives. That’s what my grandfather wants. We have our freedom again. You can talk about spirituality and things like that. But first comes materialism.”
“Does everyone agree?”
“No, I don’t agree,” Violetta said. “Krzys is just using that as an excuse. He wants the easy road. He wants to make money and live in a big house and not think too much. He’s hiding.”
“Hiding what?” he challenged her.
“I don’t know. You’re hiding it.”
“Do you think there is a place in our everyday normal life for poetry?” I asked her.
“I think it’s a really personal thing,” she said. “Like the most soft part of the fruit. If you cut real deep, you will get there. But then you will cut it open because it is so tender. It’s pretty natural to develop a hard skin. You’re asking us to spend more time cutting open the fruit.”
“Because I don’t think there is anything to be afraid of. I think we should let the juices flow. It’s nourishing. And not just for you, but when you write, or cut open the fruit, you’re doing something for me. You’re not living so selfishly.”
“So says the natural selector!”
“I just mean me, Matthew Krasner. The person. Your poetry makes my life more full. You make my life more full. It’s funny how we avoid knowing each other for the most part. How we cover up and keep everything for ourselves.”
The bell rang.
But no wave came to sweep away my students. They listened to the bell. They tucked their iphones into their pockets. They got up one by one. My words sailed a little longer in the air, reaching out for more of theirs.