Neither Men Nor Toadstools

Top Image Credit: © dzainw Top Image Credit: © dzainw
Top Image Credit: © dzainw

Top Image Credit: © dzainw

AUDIO: Neither Men Nor Toadstools

I’m inclined to think “teaching” and “instruction” in institutional contexts are only misguided industrial practice. The best that can be done (and one might admit it’s not nothing though suspect) is to learn a way to speak about the mechanics of language conventions. The only way to “master” these conventions is to write, write, write, read, read, read, speak, speak, speak. And repeat.

Poetry and literature are incitement. Words must be investigated. And the longer the piece of writing the less there is “so much depending” on the red wheelbarrow. Faulkner claimed that he wrote novels because he was a failed poet–he had to keep writing to find his meanings. This was a kind of facetiousness but it asserts that a poem seeks both concision and precision but at the same time courts abandon and extravagance. Most words will take us in opposite directions at the same time and “undercut” a fixed meaning. This is why school (authorized industrial education) and poetry don’t mix.

Melville says this of the whale’s eye and ear:

Is it not curious, that so vast a being as the whale should see the world through so small an eye, and hear the thunder through an ear which is smaller than a hare’s? But if his eyes were broad as the lens of Herschel’s great telescope; and his ears capacious as the porches of cathedrals; would that make him any longer of sight, or sharper of hearing? Not at all.—Why then do you try to “enlarge” your mind? Subtilize it.

Of course, a “subtle” mind is an “enlarged” mind. That is Melville’s book. The only way to be a poet in school is to be very subtle and quietly (secretly) subversive. To mean something quite apart from what you say; but then to realize that it’s as likely that your words also mean something else entirely and the poem is the richer and more interesting for it.

That is, allowing the expansion of meaning is perhaps the best definition of Art. A fixed meaning, like the statue of Ozymandias (what would that king’s wizard be like?), can only reveal its frailty and weakness as entropy teaches its own lesson.

Perhaps Emerson, in what may be my favorite of his essays (but why choose?), “Circles,” ends with what I would call the uses of poetry:

The one thing which we seek with insatiable desire is to forget ourselves, to be surprised out of our propriety, to lose our sempiternal memory and to do something without knowing how or why; in short to draw a new circle. Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm. The way of life is wonderful. It is by abandonment. The great moments of history are the facilities of performance through the strength of ideas, as the works of genius and religion. “A man,” said Oliver Cromwell, “never rises so high as when he knows not whither he is going.” Dreams and drunkenness, the use of opium and alcohol are the semblance and counterfeit of this oracular genius, and hence their dangerous attraction for men. For the like reason they ask the aid of wild passions, as in gaming and war, to ape in some manner these flames and generosities of the heart.

That sounds way out of reach for school instruction. But let’s let listen to what Waldo’s “son” Henry would say about it.

It is a ridiculous demand which England and America make, that you shall speak so that they can understand you. Neither men nor toadstools grow so. As if that were important, and there were not enough to understand you without them. As if Nature could support but one order of understandings, could not sustain birds as well as quadrupeds, flying as well as creeping things, and hush and whoa, which Bright* can understand, were the best English. As if there were safety in stupidity alone. I fear chiefly lest my expression may not be extravagant enough, may not wander far enough beyond the narrow limits of my daily experience, so as to be adequate to the truth of which I have been convinced. Extra vagance! it depends on how you are yarded. The migrating buffalo, which seeks new pastures in another latitude, is not extravagant like the cow which kicks over the pail, leaps the cowyard fence, and runs after her calf, in milking time. I desire to speak somewhere without bounds; like a man in a waking moment, to men in their waking moments; for I am convinced that I cannot exaggerate enough even to lay the foundation of a true expression. (Walden)

“I cannot exaggerate enough…”

Can’t think there’s a better description for the practice, the act, of committing Poetry. I wish us all guilty of it. But just read that passage again. It condemns our very conception of education as an institutional practice.

Now, with this in mind, let me add a further criticism against the our modern practice of measuring “education.” Testing retention or testing interested retention is not indicative of “cause.” Each brain and each person (the “I” in us) is very different. Same parts, different “wiring” or neural patterning–which is the complicated way we say we are unique. Of course much of what we are is “naturally” similar. But it is the differences that make the difference. Any number of factors influence our “success” in life even minute-by-minute. We are “reactors.”We cannot say what causes our reactions (but oh boy do we try) and it’s why so many of us need a “Prime Mover” (it passeth understanding).

All of life is reaction. We move habitually when a particular reaction proves “useful” or “effective” or “pleasurable” and likewise we might alter our habits should there be unbearable consequences (of course, we might not–a mystery this).

This is the strength of approaching language as an engine of possibilities. We can make endless meanings happen. This is a true fecundity and I would assert that it is the only way in which humans are “divine”–and by that I mean “cognitively aware” of the “ways” of our nature (of the way we are “in nature” as well as “outside” of nature by thinking about it). We are all poets in this sense; all of us artists if we believe in the freedom of words to make NONSENSE as well as sense.

With school testing I think our systems of living (economics, politics, government, etc) are asserting that those institutions require to make a BOX of your being. You can insert here any number of popular songs about being a number or whatnot–I’ll offer Dan Bern’s “Go to Sleep.” And, because I am immersed in it at present, here is a passage from Raintree County (1948) by Ross Lockridge, Jr.

Mr. Shawnessy, the straw man, was now driving the family westward through Waycross, an inseparable part of the Shawnessy landscape. At the intersection, he would turn due north, being a creature bounded by severe alignments.

He was bounded by the Nineteenth Century and knew only one way to escape–by living his way out moment to moment.

He was bounded by a box, the County, inside a box, the State, inside a box, the Nation, inside a box inside a box inside a box….

He was morally bounded by a certain code of right and wrong that Moses had brought down from Sinai into Raintree County. He had a way of lingering wistfully on thresholds without crossing.

He was a completely legal person…

He was a creature of amazing certainties….

He lived in a precariously poised world of taboos, pomps, and games called American Society–with no spectacular triumphs, it is true, but in a manner to inspire confidence and respect. In fact he was one of the priests of the temple, being responsible for teaching the communion to others, for he had spent a lifetime instructing the young of Raintree County in what is known as the rudiments of education. (17)

“A creature bounded by severe alignments,” this is what our educational system seeks to create as an arm of the State (anyone remember Henry’s “Civil Disobedience” and the “wooden men” made to serve the State?).

Religious institutions “fit” well in the testing model (though, oddly, they are the “schools” most able to avoid all of this) because there is a final answer to all questions. This is the hierarchical authority. The State, the Church, God, Father and so on.

Testing companies get rich off the fact that testing is not successful. It must always be changing to appear “responsive” to the needs of the institution, the needs of those in charge of the institution at the moment–new (and yet always the same) dictates on stone down from the Mount.

This way of managing creative being requires controlling the very impulse to making poetry (which is making sounds out of the instrument of self). It’s why the “new” Common Core State Standards put so much focus on analyzing informational texts as a priority and then applying that method to literary texts, or works of art. Seeking answers confined to norms and conventions written by the owners, managers, superiors. Acceptable answers.

No one would argue against some form of this as a kind of social necessity. That is we must agree on some terms in order to operate our mechanisms of order. But these are really quite simple and they need not include conceding thought and imagination to an authorized version.

School, as an institution, as a building, as a convention, as an “ordering mechanism” ALREADY teaches us the “authorized” version. It can be a nurturing protective parent or it can be a dominating and restrictive parent. The dichotomy is real and in evidence in all aspects of life.

The “human factor” within this “box” of convention is frightening to the conservative authority. This same authority has no use for poetry unless it conforms to accepted norms of discourse and treats of proper themes expressed respectfully.

That is, the “human factor” must be reduced, by force if necessary, to an expected and habitual, authorized norm.

If I were to teach, every word out of my mouth would be a subtle subversion, a toadstool.


*A common name for an ox (NCE, 3rd).

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Douglas Storm is a host and producer for Interchange on Bloomington, Indiana's community radio station WFHB. "Why then do you try to 'enlarge' your mind? Subtilize it..."

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