1961: Frost Reading Inaugural Poem

What follows are two pieces by Eric Sargent, an educator in the St. Louis area, and good friend to the Errant.  Eric has written the below in response to the state of education but also in response to our recent interest in Robert Frost.  If I may be so bold, I will offer as preface, in an attempt to stitch the two pieces into a kind connected common consideration, some words from another of our major poets, William Carlos Williams, from his book In the American Grain, “Descent.”

The primitive destiny of the land is obscure, but it has been obscured further by a field of unrelated culture stuccoed upon it that has made that destiny more difficult than ever to determine.  To this latter nearly all the aesthetic adhesions of the present day occur.  Through that stratum of obscurity the acute but frail genius of the place must penetrate.

***

All have to come from under and through a dead layer.

********

“Over-masted” Education and the 21st Curriculum:  Common Core State Standards
A Brief Reflection on Bastardized-Standardized-Assessed Sameness from the Trenches.

Fact: A classroom is a living, breathing, dynamic entity, always on the brink of the beautiful unknown from any prescribed activity.

Unfortunately, most executive-type-educators feel such negative connotations from that very word: unknown.  In this 21st century, we have become obsessed with standards and assessments as the end-all-be-all of student engagement – the what?, if you will, of education.  In a nutshell – if we can’t measure it, the students aren’t learning it!  This bound-in-a-nutshell approach leaves classroom teachers at the mercy of such CCSS’s to the point of absurdity.

As carefully as I have mapped my daily lessons, very seldom do I follow that structure precisely or even reference them.  I’m constantly measuring the classroom climate and culture on a minute-to-minute basis.  Perhaps it was my greatest of intentions to discuss gender roles in The Canterbury Tales in class today, but maybe our assignment on Annie Dillard’s “Living Like Weasels” has taken on new forms of learning and excitement.  Ok, so we snub the literary discussion for an exercise on imagery through descriptive writing.  Have we lost? Has the day been shot? Are the students not learning? Surely, we can find some time later to discuss such topics, right?  Yet, there seems to be this drive to systematically follow these maps as covenant*.

Education is not a set procedure with a set outcome; teachers and professors have varying approaches, different attitudes, a multitude of personalities; neither is the work-force structured in the same way.  There is always the possibility of the unknown, the un-chartered.  If we are truly teaching students “real world and college readiness” then we need to skip the mandated scripts, and allow above mentioned variations.  Ask yourself: how many times has a boss thrown a wrench in your daily schedule with a meeting, or extra paperwork?

I find it remarkable how often an upperclassman reminds me of old conversations from their freshman year.  All too often, I fail even to recall the conversation, and furthermore, the content had no relation with any lesson-plan of mine.  It is always some side-conversation, some digging around in the muck, or the murky outcroppings of some shallow shale, splitting effortlessly into smaller strands.  This is what sticks.  These are the lessons he carries with him.  Nothing scripted, just plain old conversation.

Recently, albeit strictly by happenstance, I embarked on a bit of a literary sea-journey with my readings of Moby-Dick and William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation.  Recognizing these as two seminal texts of early classic American literature, my original focus centered on the theme of “origin” and “intent” in American culture and literature; however, one passage in particular struck a chord for a slightly varying reason:

But here by the way let me show how afterward it was found that the leakiness of this ship [Speedwell] was partly by being over-masted and too much pressed with sails; for after she was sold and put into her old trim, she made many voyages and performed her service very sufficiently, to the great profit of her owners.  But more especially, by the cunning and deceit of the master of his company, who were hired to stay a whole year in the country, and now fancying dislike and fearing want of victuals, they plotted this stratagem to free themselves; as afterwards was known and by some of them confessed.  (Of Plymouth Plantation,Chapter VIII)

One immediately recognizes the subversive in this tale; the cunning, deliberate attempt and success of “master and company” for their own benefit; their own profit, their own fears of an unknown alternative in the hands of “others.”  Whose good is served here?  What righteousness prevails?  What passengers do we leave behind?  Such “fakery” is thus the conversation of the hour in education.  Here “master and company” are synonymous with educational bureaucracy – a core of men and women influencing the classroom with CCSS’s from the outside as if they know what is “best” for the journeymen (teacher and student)?  Rather than allow freedom of thought and expression based on teacher-student relationships (weightlessness), they have manipulated the entire school day/year into compartmentalized standards, aka “unnecessary weight.”  They pretend that such mandates facilitate true instruction; promote continuity amongst youngsters. But the process is otherwise dilatory.  They have bogged down each lesson with time-consuming and ambiguous “standards.”  They equivocate for sameness (the known), under a pretense of individuality.  They increase teachers’ already hefty workload; they forestall the journey.
Simply, we have over-masted our ships.

*There is a push in our school structure for each teacher to deliver the same lesson, same assessment, same tests, same exams, etc. for each discipline.

*******

“Drink and be Whole Again Beyond Confusion: A Reflection on Robert Frost”

The land was ours before we were the land’s.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people.  She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia,
But we were England’s, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed…

Robert Frost’s inaugural poem for John F. Kennedy’s 1961 presidency reeks of colonialism and that ever-present European desire of westward expansion.  According to his brief poem, this country was “unstoried” and “artless” only to be enlightened by British/American warmongers and “cultural” developers that quickened a storyline for an otherwise empty vastness.  Then, at 86, Frost was a four-time Pulitzer Prize winner, and would die just two years later, bequeathing his name to the annals of American poetry to the delight (or chagrin) of American schoolchildren forever.  Much like T.S. Eliot however, Frost was more expatriate than American poster-boy in his earlier days; he himself a failure at New England farming only to exile himself to a cheaper living standard in England during the brief period of 1911 to 1915.  It was during this time that he published (to great European acclaim) his first book of poems, A Boy’s Will.  As evident in his first batch of poems and throughout his career, Frost owed more allegiance to the British tradition than his American contemporaries such as William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens, themselves dabblers in the “everyday”, imagism, and sometimes the Eastern.

Similarly to his inaugural poem (“The Gift Outright”), Frost’s other poems possess an eerily contemplative look at “histories.”  His own history, rife with sorrow, depression, familial suicide, perhaps subconsciously governs his more ominous ones.  Even the always misconstrued “Road Not Taken” appears every Spring at high school and college graduations as some tome for living and choosing the “right” path.  Unfortunately, our best and brightest valedictorians misinterpret the sadness and regret of that poem – the unalterable truths of our very own history – for something cheery and refreshing.  For me, Frost’s greatest “history” – so desolate and yet all-encompassing in its own confusion – is “Directive”.

Written in his later years (70’s maybe), Frost ultimately (in my opinion) presents his most convincing, most articulate within the inarticulate voice of the speaker “who only has at heart your getting lost.”  After years of climbing in-and-out of apple trees, plodding along ambiguously “grassy/worn” paths, mending walls, and harvesting the earth, Frost languidly meanders through more than just human history – before homes, before towns, before Christ – but toward the geological miracle that started us all: the Ice Age.  Somewhere in the “southeast-northwest” ledges of Panther Mountain is the primal rumbling of civilization, still millions of years in the making, before humans stamped it out with their own inevitable demise, like so much broken “graveyard marble.”  From that frozen cataclysmic moment in time, we, ourselves in our eventual own invention, begin our own making, toward our own true histories, that now lie untouched in archeological pits – strewn with old rusted-out wagon wheels and childhood toys.  The opening line written in a perfect monosyllabic iambic pentameter, asks the reader to take a step back and not just reflect upon the ruin (quite like his hero Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias”), but to walk with him on the desolate journey.  We were once a conglomerate of cultures melding, the poem suggests; but now “both of them are lost.”  Therefore, we are urged to create our own history for this place – a more tolerable and painless substitute for the truth:

Make yourself up a cheering song of how
Someone’s road home from work this once was,
Who may just be ahead of you on foot
Or creaking with a buggy load of grain.

Once we find this palatable new-truth for ourselves, we are asked to close up shop, roll up our past, and make ourselves “at home”; in other words: content.  Here, as in “The Road Not Taken” the speaker begs for an element of complacency.  We are inclined only to please ourselves, to trick the mind that our journey has nevertheless been worthwhile – “to weep for what little things could make them glad.”  It is in this “could make” that resonates most.  Your past, our past is only what we imagine or re-imagine it to be – a potential Holy Grail mixed in with other odds-and-ends of living, scattered next to the archetypal brook, supplying us with water, once frozen a million years ago and now the source for our re-invention, our wholeness, if we choose to drink.  Thus, as in “The Gift Outright”, we are this land, this water; and we are asked to drink, to make our own stories, to make our own histories, to interpret our own existence for ourselves, and that has made all the difference to me.

Photo Credit: The first inaugural poet, Robert Frost, recited “The Gift Outright” for John F. Kennedy in 1961. NYTimes

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Eric Sargent teaches English at a private high school in St. Louis.

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  1. What Is American Education? - June 24, 2012

    [...] piece about Common Core State Standards. The Errant has posted before on this (here, and here–the collusion of “divergent” interests) but I want to try to elaborate [...]

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