What Shall We Teach the Young?
"What Shall We Teach the Young" was first presented by the Los Angeles Public Library on December 12, 1999 in a lecture series titled "The Big Questions, a celebration of writing, reading, and public debate." The series was sponsored by the Library Foundation of Los Angeles with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and through the generosity of Peg Yorkin. Pinsky's remarks are published here with his permission.
In introducing Robert Pinsky, I would like to forego revisiting every one of his stellar accomplishments, because we'd be here all day — his books of poetry, criticism, translation, his awards and prizes — and talk briefly about what seems to me to be at the heart of this brilliant fire of energy and acts: his teaching. His manner of teaching seems crystallized in books like the recent The Sounds of Poetry, where he uses his ear and asks the reader to use hers to re-approach how we incorporate and internally hear the inflection of poetry; and how poetry is enacted within us — when we don't just read it aloud, but say it aloud, simplifying these processes so that we see, like someone describing walking or breathing, how poetry actually comes to life within the human mind and body.
His public teaching persona, apart from his academic post at Boston University, has been made manifest through his role as Poet Laureate and through his work on the Favorite Poem Project, a project that has uncovered more poems remembered and loved, and stored in the human heart and spoken aloud in as many voices than ever before in our history.
Our topic today is not just teaching, but the larger question, how and what do we teach the young? As an important American poet, Theodore Roethke, once said about poetry, “We do not teach it, we insinuate it.” The young learn through insinuation. They acquire knowledge insinuated from larger experience, and longer experience.
In an example from Pinsky's writings, the poem, From the Childhood of Jesus, he gives us Jesus at five, long before Christ regales the elders in the temple at twelve or thirteen with his knowledge. It is a disturbing poem, full of wonders. We see the child God modeling sparrows out of clay at the river, as any human child would, then endowing them with life, as any young god would. But when he is scolded by a friend of his father for profaning the Sabbath, he is angry, as a human child, as a young deity, as a Christian, as a Jew, and he performs acts of destruction. Because his omnipotence is available to him, impulse is available to him, but not experience. He has not learned yet what the poem teaches us: wonder and sorrow. He has not learned what Robert Pinsky is teaching, how the compassionate imagination changes the world.
Thank you. Robert Pinsky. [applause]
I agree with Carol very much that insinuation, rather than instruction, is the idea. I am speaking to you not only as a poet, or writer, but also as someone who for many years has earned my bread as a teacher. And I'll begin by telling you that by no means do I intend to answer the question that I've posed to you with a specific curriculum.
We know from history that any canon, any curriculum, any notion of the quadrivium and the trivium, or the hundred great books, or what should be put on the statewide standard exam, is doomed to comedy. Sooner or later, these earnest huffings and puffings and lists will look silly, as teaching so easily can do. (Even Aristotle, after he becomes the tutor of Alexander the Great, becomes a figure of comedy.)
Last night — I warn you that a cute-child story is coming...worse, it's a “cute grandchild” story — Last night I was having dinner with my grandson, my daughter and my son-in-law. At one point, Samuel Eli Pinsky-Dickson, the world's cutest human, put his fingers in his milk, and his dad quite properly said, “Sam, don't put your fingers in your milk.”
Such direction is not teaching; though I guess it is instruction. (Not putting one's own fingers in one's drink is teaching by example, I guess.) But Kent, as a parent, couldn't resist adding something teacherly, something instructive. He said, “Your milk is not a toy.” And I was the only person at the table who heard Sam murmur, not with animus, and not with heat, mildly to himself: “Yes, it is.”
I don't believe that Kent was wrong to add that little lesson, “Your milk is not a toy.” After all, principles are at stake. It was a way of saying to the child “there are principles, such as decorum at table” — fitting to say, as the child's calm observation also was appropriate and indeed self-evidently true: “It's a toy when I play with it.”
And I think what we teach the young, whether we mean to or not, does consist largely of principles. Long after what is taught may be forgotten, the principle's there. Probably as parents, we do most of our teaching before the person is four or five years old, maybe even before the person is two or three years old, and most of it is by implication and example.
I'm going to propose to you some principles I think are most important. I will hark back to my experience of asking people, Who were the best teachers you ever had? The most memorable? Most people have an answer. And when you say, Well, what specifically do you remember? What do you remember that she did? What did he teach you? What did she say? What subject did he teach? It might be chemistry, it might be music, it might be performance, it might be literature, it might be foreign language — but usually not much about the subject is recalled. Instead, remarkably often, the person says something like: “I can imagine her voice, talking about French literature.” Or, “I can remember the sound of his voice, I can still hear the passion in his voice when he was talking about the mysterious, intricate nature of the cell.” We remember voice, a voice. Very often, there's a physical, indeed often a bodily quality to our memory of significant teaching.
I understand this corporeal impression as a principle: the first and most basic of three that I'll try to define: a memorable physicality; a worthy difficulty; and something, for want of a better word, I'll call by the awkward term “from-someness.”
Consider the human animal. Instruction is clearly very important to it. In a famous classical tag, the human primate has pathetically feeble weapons in the way of teeth and claws. As to defense, its hide is inadequate for protection from enemies or the elements. The creature is not, even in its most spectacular specimens, a very fast runner. It cannot fly at all. It is an indifferent swimmer, a mediocre climber. How has it managed to survive with this unimpressive equipment?
It has managed to survive partly by evolving — through a system of grunts, surprisingly elaborate, emitted through the orifice of ingestion — a means of collaboration among individuals. Vocal codes allow complex arrangements for securing protection, for finding food, for organizing life with mating customs, burial customs, a social machinery. We can speculate that originally this system of communication included not only vocal noises or grunts, but accompanying gestures and movements, combining what we now divide into music, dance, and poetry. It follows that the arts originate deep in our intelligence, in our need to survive by collaborating — and by remembering.
Remembering, because the communication is not only with present peers, horizontally. The creature also devised these means in order to cooperate vertically in time, communicating with its predecessors and descendants. A sophisticated vocal example of this process is embodied by the griots in Alex Haley's Roots — who preserve and retrieve quite detailed information about dynasties and property rights: through a technology, if you will, based on the ability of the body itself. That technology of the body provides across generations valuable information about which kinds of food are available at what time of year, what means of protection are effective, principles and methods of marriage, inheritance, government, judicial practice, worship, medicine, funeral practice.
This vital process of transmission and recall, clearly physical, also involves my two other principles, both dependent upon corporeality: of worthy difficulty (the skills and techniques of the griot must be mastered) and from-someness (besides information about the past, the chants of the griot themselves and their very form come from a textured past).
Let me suggest to you at this point a small thought experiment. Speaking as a primate, I invite you to picture one of the young, and let's make it of our own tribe. Picture an American between thirteen and seventeen. Give this person a gender and an ethnicity. Imagine some styles of hair and grooming and dress, jewelry, and so forth. And put that child on a street somewhere. Imagine to yourself a teenaged child. Not necessarily someone you know; just make up an adolescent and put that child on a street.
Now, take that same mental image, and give the imaginary adolescent a musical instrument case.
Don't you cheer up? Do you not feel better about that person? The musical instrument is a powerful symbol. And the things it symbolizes seem to me perhaps the most important things. It represents effort, and effort in an area that is infinitely demanding. The greatest musician always can do something new or better, and always needs to refine and maintain skills. The instrument symbolizes, almost invariably, cooperation with others. It is a symbol of willingness to learn, and also of accepting goods from the past, because musical instruments are palimpsests of time. They are invented and refined, they evolve and are traditional. It is an image of beauty, of comfort, of excitement, of application, of hope, of disciplining the body, of availing oneself of the past, and maybe striving to add to it.
It embodies the universal love of difficulty.
That love is why the video parlors are full of kids playing the video games. The games are canned, available, enticing difficulty. Similarly, when someone in this country is successful and makes a lot of money, very likely that person will be found on the greensward, clubbing about a little white ball. Because it is difficult. And we crave difficulty. Music, and art in general, fills that craving, sometimes profoundly, a profundity that makes the instrument case held by the adolescent a sight we intuitively find reassuring and cheering.
If you think of the primate that to survive evolved means of communicating, not only with peers in the present, but also with the past, I submit to you that what we now call education in the arts is not an ornament, or a decoration, or a beauty, or a nice thing to do with learning, but that it resides at the center of the process of learning. Biologically, genetically, at the basis of our capacity to learn is our instinct to make art, which I associate with our love of difficulty. Perhaps the human animal is the difficulty-loving creature. Because of its physical weakness, it has bred itself and developed itself and evolved to love dealing with difficulty. Not even necessarily mastering the difficulty, but engaging it, and feeling the engagement in one's body.
The presence of meaning in what we make with our hands, voice, the body moving, lives at the center of the process of learning. The arts themselves are more important than any curriculum or any list of facts, or any list of texts. These are at the core of things. It is not a coincidence that Einstein knew poetry in many languages, not a coincidence or an interesting sidelight that he was a devoted amateur violinist. It's not by-the-by or a comment on one particular generation that people working on the Manhattan Project played string quartets, painted, translated and read poetry. Though that fact may feel ironic, it is not only ironic.
Art is deeply at the root of our intelligence and our capacity to learn. And the school board, or the school system, that thinks it is doing something wonderful for the kids by buying a lot of software, or perhaps worse yet, hardware, that will become obsolete within a few months or a year, may be insufficiently mindful of how the sousaphone, cello and piano do not become obsolete.
I speak as a devotee of the digital computer. I like it a lot and I use it a lot. It's a great tool, and in fact it can be used to create art. But it's not as fundamentally important as instruction in art! It's not as central. And if you're going to hire somebody, and you have fifteen people, all of whom are pretty well conversant with programming or applications, all of whom can perform tasks with the computer, and two or three of them know languages like Hindi, or Spanish, or Portuguese, or Greek, and the same ones happen to know how to play the cello, or bluegrass guitar, banjo, or something, hire those people! Because they've proved they can deal with difficulty. They know how to use the past. And they have not been living their intellectual life abstractly. They have an experience of the body, which is a vitally important means of learning.
Let me give you an example of a difficult, difficult ability that everybody learns — speaking the English language. If we taught this skill formally in school, we would have as many people with speaking difficulties and speaking problems as we do now with reading problems. For example, take the crazy maze of prepositions in English. I have never heard any child make a mistake in regard to the following matters:
What's the difference between, “Don't put me down,” and, “Don't bring me down?” “Well, I wasn't brought up that way, so I won't put up with it. Did she go down on him? She wasn't brought up that way. Then why bring it up? I was put up to it. Though I wasn't brought up to put people down, it brings me down now. It's a comedown, and you'll get your comeuppance, should it come up in conversation.”
Does that come across?
Even the kids we call the slowest get the prepositions right — you just don't hear mistakes made. Even the dopiest kid you knew in grade school didn't get “bring me down” and “put me down” wrong.
If a teacher made flash cards for the use of prepositions with “bring,” “come” and “put,” and tried to have children learn it methodically and memorize it as a system, the students would make mistakes.
More effectively, we learn it...the best adverb I can give you is...“athletically.” We all learn it because, in the course of the real-life game of getting what we desire — acceptance by our peers, participation in what's going on, a piece of candy, a desirable toy — we need to learn it! And even if we have problems with “language skills” we learn the preposition maze. It is a physical and social process. Its difficulty is accepted with relish. And it is inherited. It's a system that came from somewhere, dense with origin, a matrix of codes that was not invented today. Even though some of it is slang, it's also traditional — as slang is.
We have the vanity that we're changing the English language — that supposition is one of the many vanities of the present. The English language is very static and stable now. Literacy, for one thing, tends to slow down the changes in the language. English in Shakespeare's language was changing rapidly, largely because spoken language is much more fluid and fluent than writing, as writing is than print. Contrary to people who deplore a decline in English, adding a few technological terms and possibly a few new slang terms and formations doesn't do anything radical to a language.
Those little idioms in English — bringing up and coming up and so forth — represent something very much inherited, very much from the past.
A lot of what I've been saying to you applies pretty clearly to my own art of poetry: an ancient and vocal art that doesn't require much equipment. And it is sometimes associated with difficulty — but. What I mean to emphasize is the bodily quality of poetry, which takes for its medium a voice: anybody's voice. The art is vocal but not performative. That is, it doesn't necessarily depend upon the voice of the artist, or of a skilled performer. You don't have to have a wonderfully animated manner or be an actor or the bard or rapper who skillfully acts out his own verses, or her own verses. In our culture with its immense emphasis on performance, poetry is a kind of haven of the intimately bodily, individual scale. You say the poem by, say Emily Dickinson or Yeats to yourself, and your own individual voice — actual or imagined — is the medium.
I'll give you an example of what I mean by the physical, vocal, not necessarily performative nature of the art. Here is a poem by Robert Frost that is one of my favorite embodiments of physical grace in language:
Love at the lips was touch
As sweet as I could bear;
And once that seemed too much;
I lived on air
That crossed me from sweet things,
The flow of — was it musk
From hidden grapevine springs
Downhill at dusk?
I had the swirl and ache
From sprays of honeysuckle
That when they're gathered shake
Dew on the knuckle.
I craved strong sweets, but those
Seemed strong when I was young;
The petal of the rose
It was that stung.
Now no joy but lacks salt,
That is not dashed with pain
And weariness and fault;
I crave the stain
Of tears, the aftermark
Of almost too much love,
The sweet of bitter bark
And burning clove.
When stiff and sore and scarred
I take away my hand
From leaning on it hard
In grass or sand,
The hurt is not enough:
I long for weight and strength
To feel the earth as rough
To all my length.
It's like watching a great dancer move and leap. You feel the grammar pouring across those lines; the rhymes, like — like what? Like piano wire stretched over a peg, but often not wrapped around it, just going right past it. Nobody knows why this is so exciting, rhythm. “I had the swirl and ache/ from sprays of honeysuckle/ that when they're gathered shake/ dew on the knuckle.” But it is.
The poem is, in a way, about learning. On the obvious level, on the first level, when you first hear the poem, you likely hear that it's beautiful. Then maybe a little bit later on, you may think (if you are me) “Oh, when I was young, this, when I was old, that.” When I was young, this, when I was old, that, is a principle, like, “Your milk is not a toy.” Because the paradigm is sort of true but sort of false: this rather delicate sensibility has unmistakably stayed the same, young and old.
That is, under the principle of change is an other, stubborn thing that says, my idea of harshness of experience is to lean on my hand in grass or sand. Even the stain of tears, the aftermark of bitter bark and burning clove — it smells like cinnamon in an apple pie — is rather fine and exquisite. It's far from a violent extreme. The sensibility remains very finely tuned, choosing a tearstain for its term rather than a wound. Stubbornly staying with what its nature is, through its changes, from beginning to end.
And my saying the poem to you — trying to say it plainly, without hamming it up, without overemphasizing the drama on one side or the rhythm on the other — is a physical process whereby the dead author's writing, through my voice, moves us. Breath, orchestrated by the author, vibrating in my voicebox, and then teeny bones in the ear vibrate: physical, bodily phenomena. Like learning itself.
I heard a man speak who invented a certain kind of sub-atomic experimental chamber at Stanford. It seemed there were certain particles scientists thought they could never look at, and he found a way to halt the particles, and in effect hold them up for inspection. Though he's a physicist, his discovery is going to have tremendous biological applications, too, because there are tiny, tiny organic particles they're now going to be able to see in this unprecedented way.
Here's how he described the process of his discovery, which was rather out of his field. There was an anomaly in some set of data. Everybody knew the data, everybody knew the anomaly, without understanding it.
And then his process of thinking about it began. He says that amid his frustration, in order to think about it, he went back to basic physics, and he drew little pictures of the phenomenon. And he said a wonderful thing. He said, I kept drawing it and visualizing it physically until I understood it in my stomach. After I understood it in my stomach, I could start to meditate it and analyze it, and think about it. In the stomach, and then in the analytical intelligence.
This formulation reflects a truth about music, and poetry, and dance — these arts, too, get you used to dealing with very complex difficulties by feeling them down here that are also and eventually up here. Athletes call it “body knowledge.” A musician will talk about “getting it into your fingers.” It isn't actually in your fingers. It's in the brain, in some synapse that you have trained. But you feel it in your fingers. You're not having to think about the fingering anymore.
I'm told that actors like to memorize a part so very well, memorization so complete, that when they say the line, they are not thinking about remembering the line. Then they are free to live the line, to do it, because, through that discipline, it has become as though physical. The boundary between the physical and the intellectual is eased.
This might be a good point to tell you that when I was in the eighth grade, I was in the dumb class. At this point in my life, it's a form of boasting; when I was thirteen years old, it was a form of pain. They call it something else officially, but it's known as “the dumb class.” Alternately, even more eloquent and cogent, “the bad class.” I can't tell you, to this day, why I found it so hard to do what I was told to do. I was happy to read Julius Caesar, as long as it wasn't assigned. I would read any part of the history textbook, as long as it wasn't where we were supposed to... And if I accidentally wandered into something we were supposed to read, I felt something like an electric shock go through my body. I gradually found ways to get on in the world that let my own intellectual eccentricities and ways of operating get me ahead a bit.
Through my adolescent years, I was trying fairly hard to be a musician. I daydreamed about it, but I also played — and even practiced. The one thing I did right in high school was play music. I was in a band. You could even call it professional in the sense that I blew into a horn and people paid me money. But it was very low-level, high school dances and bars and such.
When I got to college, I began to face that I wasn't a very good musician. I just didn't have the things you should have if you're actually going to pursue a career as a musician. Fortunately, at about the same time, I discovered that there was an art based on the sounds of language, which I had been thinking about in one corner of my mind since I was tiny. And that that art had all the difficulty and intricacy and capacity for variation and precision and expression, all the rich harking-back, that music had.
I'll read you a poem now that I read when I was seventeen years old, when I first went away to college. I was very fortunate; I had a wonderful teacher, a man named Paul Fussell. You may know his book, The Great War and Modern Memory. And Fussell gave us this to read. I was so struck by this that I went home and typed it up, and pinned it on the wall in the room where I had breakfast, so I could stare at it and think, “How did he do that?” It's difficulty. The fact that I knew I didn't penetrate it...thrilled me.
Difficulty is very pleasurable. I can remember as a kid how I loved reading books that I knew were too old for me. Sometimes it was literally sex, but more often, there's just something sexy about reading big words, or mysterious information about a country, you know Scotland or somewhere, and place names, and objects that I had no notion what they were. The Sherlock Holmes story, when he gets the tantalus off the sideboard. Not only, “What's a tantalus?” but “What's a sideboard?” [laughter] The from-someness of it.
Sailing to Byzantium
That is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees
— Those dying generations — at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.
O sages standing in God's holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
I knew I didn't know what the “artifice of eternity” was. I knew also that I loved it. That something was artificial, and all the better for being artificial, and the scornful tone of, “Once out of nature I shall never take/ my natural form from any natural thing.” It gave me some of the feeling I got from the Christian music and images that were forbidden and sinister to me, and from the Jewish rituals and images and language that was native, and often tedious and oppressive to me.
Here was the language of spirituality, untrammeled by conventional religion. Associated with art, and a little golden clockwork bird that somehow sings. I didn't understand what it meant to have a clockwork bird sing or why that's what Yeats would want his soul to become. But I knew it gave me an emotion similar to that of religious images, yet in a way that removed me from the often inconvenient fact that I lived in a Christian culture and I was Jewish. I thought that was cool.
And this: “Consume my heart away.” “Consume my heart away, sick with desire and fastened to a dying animal.” I had the image of what it would be like to be fastened to a dying rhino or lion. Though I knew, I was smart enough to know, that the dying animal was the body. “Consume it away.” “Fastened to a dying...” “Sick with desire.” Sick with desire. And the reader is seventeen years old. [laughter] “Sick with desire. And fastened to a dying animal."
“It knows not what it is” summed up so much, including my response to the poem itself. And the fact that the poem was a worthy difficulty, a difficulty that spoke to me more powerfully than any athletic, or indeed, any musical difficulty I had ever encountered, was quite like — not to be corny about it — falling in love.
Let me read to you a quotation about this phenomenon from this book, of which I'm very proud, Americans' Favorite Poems, published by Norton. It's based on the Favorite Poem Project, my project as Poet Laureate — an undertaking Carol Muske has helped me in her capacity as the Witter-Bynner Fellow. There are 200 poems here, and each poem is accompanied by quotations from letters written by people from among the 20,000 people who volunteered to take part in the Favorite Poem Project.
Here's one brief example, which to me also speaks of the two ideas of physicality and difficulty. Maryann Whitty, fifty-five, social worker, Detroit, Michigan. This is what she wrote.
“For the last twenty-two years, I have lived in an Inner City neighborhood, working through the church for social and economic justice, and racial reconciliation. As a young woman, I admired this poem. Only now that I am older do I realize what really good advice it is, in addition to the beauty of its music.”
This is the poem. It was written in the seventh century before Christ, by the Greek poet Archilochos. It's called “Will, Lost in a Sea of Trouble,” in an extremely effective translation by Kenneth Rexroth:
Will, lost in a sea of trouble,
Rise, save yourself from the whirlpool
Of the enemies of willing.
Courage exposes, ambushes.
Steadfastness destroys enemies.
Keep your victories hidden.
Do not sulk over defeat.
Accept good. Bend before evil.
Learn the rhythm which binds all men.
If you think of the primate that devised this system of grunts and of dancing and of chanting to transmit important information across the generations, and think about how that created a chain from generation to generation, from those anonymous primates to descendants and then to Archilochos and to Rexroth and to us, generations acknowledging that art, the discipline of the body and the mind and the spirit, difficult, demanding, that that was a precious treasure that we're handing on. In a way like the father in Robert Hayden's “Those Winter Sundays” making the fire and shining the good shoes, a chain of care and information and forms.
And what if the chain comes down to you, to our generation? What if we are the first generation that says, “It's a luxury. The kids want the athletic equipment, they have to have their computers. Art is sweet but not really that important. Let's do without it for a little while.” Curses on us! Woe to us! It's a great violation, like those that bring down horror in old stories. If we become the generation that says, “We don't need it, though it does go back that far, we are now different” — then woe to us.
Or so I think. I have a superstitious and abiding sense that insofar as you remove the instrument case, it's not only a local matter. It's extending back to defy or abrogate a chain that goes to our origins. Intelligence and learning are associated with art, with all the arts. They're at the core, not peripheral. The human ability to learn, the relish for difficulty, for physical engagement of difficulty, for something that comes from somewhere — these have profound origins.
We owe the children vivid access to the fact that everything comes from somewhere. I have written that the shopping mall is exactly and precisely as historical as Florence, Italy. That is, if Florence looks more historical to us, that is because our equipment for perception is defective and not informed enough. The city of art and the mall are equally the outcome of tens of thousands of years of human history. They are equally the outcome of countless arduous, horrible, and beautiful events.
Take two kids at the mall, with their body pierces and certain clothes, and maybe hair dyed crazy colors, and one kid says to the other one, “Are you going to that party next week?” And the other one says, “I hope so. I may have to stay home and study.”
If you could fully understand that conversation and its setting — I mean, understand the logos on the stores, the dyestuffs in the clothes, the history of commercial culture and the way that various punk styles, hip-hop styles, both incorporate that commercial culture and rebel against it; if you could understand the economic relations that brought the garments and the other products to be sold in the mall, the architecture, the allusions to Bauhaus, to the Middle Ages or to the nineteen-fifties.... If you could understand the language the kids are using; the shapes of their bodies, the color of their skin, the shape of their noses and their heads, their various and mixed ancestries. And the ancestry of the language they speak. From that conversation in the mall and its surroundings, if only we had enough historical insight, you could create the entire history of the world. You could know everything from it, because it is all there.
And they deserve to know it is there. The language in which I am addressing you has an enormously large and rich vocabulary, as well as the peculiar structure I have alluded to, because it is the product of expropriation, enslavement, rape, invasion. The island experienced successive waves of invaders, each invader, in the course of raping and enslaving and maltreating and exploiting the ones that went before, exchanged languages, got some of the victims' language, culture, chromosomal structure.
I'm told there's a hill in Cornwall called Torpenhow Hill. Torpenhow Hill. Well, “tor,” in the language of the Scandinavian raiders, means a high place, or an elevation. “Pen,” in the Cornish tongue, meant a rise, or high place. So when the invader asked the person he's got by the throat, “What's that?”— “pen,” the generic name gets confused with the specific name. So it becomes “Tor Pen.” But, then, “hof.” A “hof” in the Germanic tongue, is a high thing. So, “Tor Pen Hof,” is “Hill Hill Hill.” The place is called “Hill Hill Hill Hill.” And if invaders come from another solar system and enslave us, it'll perhaps be called “Hill Hill Hill Hill Galanstorm.” That is embedded in the language.
And the children have a right to know that the reason they eat pork and beef and veal and mutton has to do with boeuf and porc, and mouton and veau. They don't eat pig, they don't eat cow, they don't eat calf. They don't say, “I'll have a piece of sheep for lunch,” or, “I like the Campbell's Scotch broth because it has little pieces of sheep in it,” because of the Norman invasion. The degraded people who took care of the animal, and carried its shit, and slaughtered it, were the Anglo-Saxons. So in their language, the animal is called pig, sheep. Kill the cow, because they want to eat beef at the big house. At the big house, they don't eat cow. They eat boeuf.
These are my little, personal stock examples, emblematic. I don't have the learning to know what all the things are they should learn about the garments on their backs, the language in their mouth, the cars they drive, the place they live. But more than any specific curriculum, we owe teaching them this principle. None of this has anything to do with the statewide standards — which may be good, to some extent. They're good in the way that “Your milk is not a toy” is good. Kind of pathetic, kind of stupid, kind of silly, but better than nothing...saying, I'm trying to pass things on. And also necessary, that little rebellious, realistic murmur.
I've gotten a whole set of things from people, teachers and teacher-figures, many of whom are now dead. I feel an obligation to give them to you, to you students, not only for your sake, but so you can give them to people who may not yet be born. Think of my two immediate ancestors, and then my four grandparents, and eight great-grandparents. Going back a few generations, it's hundreds of predecessors. By Shakespeare's time, I am made by thousands of people. So anyone who speaks of their ancestors is really ridiculous. Pick one ancestor in Shakespeare's time, that's one out of a roomful of a couple of thousand people. Go further back, it gets immense! It gets to be so big, that we are truly all cousins, we are brothers and sisters. Because there's just so many back there, you know that they're related.
And we're all the product somewhere back there of a love match, we're all the product of a rape, of an arranged marriage, anything you want to name. A king, a slave, it's back there, somewhere, behind all of us. That's your body. Widening out.
Then there's also the ancestors in the history of your culture, and your outlook. Your name. Your figurative ancestors, millions of them, in so many ways more significant than your literal ancestors, in their millions.
That's what we're really saying to the young. That we have many things. Some of them are horrible, some of them are treasures. Sometimes we don't know the difference. Some of them are difficult; and often those are the best ones. And we say to them, I'm going to try to give you physical means of acquiring them. Here's a horn, or a fiddle. Here's my voice.
Robert Pinsky served three terms as Poet Laureate of the United States. He teaches in the graduate writing program at Boston University.
Carol Muske-Dukes, an award winning poet, is most recently author of a novel, Life After Death, published in 2001, and of a book of poems, Married to an Icepick Killer: A Poet in Hollywood.
“To Earthward” from The Poetry of Robert Frost edited by Edward Connery Lathem. Copyright 1951 by Robert Frost, copyright 1923, Â© 1969 by Henry Holt and Company. Reprinted by permission of Henry Holt and Company, LLC.
“Sailing to Byzantium” by W. B. Yeats, reprinted here by permission of A P Watt Ltd on behalf of Michael B. Yeats.
“Will, Lost in a Sea of Trouble” by Archilochos, from Archilochos, by Frederic Will, Twayne Publishers, 1969. Reprinted by permission of The Gale Group.