Mr. Sanders, our junior high school English teacher, had a very unconventional method of teaching poetry. Years later, in my graduate school course on literary criticism, I learned it was formalist criticism. At the time, it was the most radical approach to reading poetry we had encountered. Up to that point, we were taught about the poet, the date of the poem, its rhyme scheme, and what it meant.
Mr. Sanders, to our utter dismay, asked us to pick a poem out of our text book and explicate it, without giving us any further information or any hint as to its meaning. I can perfectly remember, 54 year laters, sitting in the library staring at Dylan Thomas’ poem A Refusal to Mourn the Death by Fire of a Child in London.
Never until the mankind making
Bird beast and flower
Fathering and all humbling darkness
Tells with silence the last light breaking
And the still hour
Is come of the sea tumbling in harness
And I must enter again the round
Zion of the water bead
And the synagogue of the ear of corn
Shall I let pray the shadow of a sound
Or sow my salt seed
In the least valley of sackcloth to mourn
The majesty and burning of the child’s death.
I shall not murder
The mankind of her going with a grave truth
Nor blaspheme down the stations of the breath
With any further
Elegy of innocence and youth.
Deep with the first dead lies London’s daughter,
Robed in the long friends,
The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother,
Secret by the unmourning water
Of the riding Thames.
After the first death, there is no other.
I entered my junior year high school English class with no expectations. I had survived two mind numbing years of English, and thought I knew what to expect. Instead, after we were all seated, our new teacher, Mr. Sanders, began pacing the room reading aloud from a novel. He gave us no introduction, not even the title of what he was reading. Were we supposed to take notes? Would there be a test? What was going on? We were polite and respectful, since it was 1963 and that was the norm, but we were puzzled.
We gradually realized that we knew nothing about reading literature, or else we were being reminded of what we used to know before high school had ruined it for us. He had joy in reading, delight in talking about reading, and encouragement for writing about what we were reading. Our first assignment on the novel was to pick one American book of social protest and analyze it in any way we saw fit. How to explain how shockingly radical this task was to those of us used to parroting the teacher’s point of view back?
I chose Richard Wright’s Notes of a Native Son. The book staggered me, introducing me to parts of life I had never seen. It was, for the times, a completely subversive text and also a perfectly timed reading for me, igniting a deep sense of the need for racial justice which has never left me.
On November 22, 1963, we were in Mr. Sanders’ English class when the P.A. system crackled and our principal announced that President Kennedy had been shot. Mr. Sanders began to cry and left the room. I had never seen a man cry, nor had a teacher ever left the room. He came back in, turned off the overhead lights, and stood looking out the window. We were able to sit and feel the impact of the shooting and the comfort of a teacher who didn’t insist on “business as usual.”
Several hours later, the P.A. crackled again and we knew the President was dead. My teacher at that class went right on talking about the American history lesson. But I wasn’t fooled, I knew we were experiencing real history and that Mr. Sanders had modeled the appropriate response.