Some thirty years ago I warned one of my classes at Harvard not to put off something or other, since "at my back I always hear time's wingèd chariot hurrying near."
They looked puzzled, as if I had broken into demotic Greek. Did what I just said sound like me? I asked. No. Did you think it might have been a quotation? Probably. Has anyone ever heard of a poem called "To His Coy Mistress?" Of Andrew Marvell? No and no.
The next day I handed out the easiest poetry quiz I had been able to put together. The students were to fill in the missing word or words from lines that I figured every high school over-achiever would surely know…
I figured wrong. None of the freshmen got, "The boy stood on the burning _____." None got, "Half a league, half a league, half a league _____." One got, "Beneath the spreading chestnut tree the village _____ _____." One got, "I met a traveler from an antique _____." Only one got, "You're a better man than I am, _____ _____." (Two others guessed, "Charlie Brown.") The highest score was 14 right out of 20 questions; the lowest was two right; the average was seven.
The only question everybody got right was a freebie I had thrown in: "This Bud's for _____." Actually I thought I had thrown in another freebie, "Winstons taste good, like a _____ _____," but only four students got it. Cigarette ads, I remembered too late, had disappeared from TV when they were barely out of diapers. Nor was my class an exception. When a colleague, the poet Felicia Lamport, gave the same quiz to her students, they did no better.
Stupidity can hardly have been the reason. Harvard undergraduates are by no means as brilliant as the world imagines, but most of them are above average and a few are very bright indeed.
Nor were my students likely to have neglected their poetry homework in high school. They didn’t make it to Harvard by neglecting homework. If they hadn't learned poetry, no one had given it to them to learn.Nor were my students likely to have neglected their poetry homework in high school. They didn’t make it to Harvard by neglecting homework. If they hadn't learned poetry, no one had given it to them to learn.
This turned out to be the case. One or two of the students said they had been made to memorize a passage from Shakespeare in high school, that was all. Most had been required to read a handful of poems; none had ever been moved to memorize one on his or her own. When I told them I had done that very thing as a schoolboy, and more than once too, they couldn't see the sense in it.
There they were then, poetry aliterates but no more to be blamed for that than a glass is to blame for being empty. Nobody had bothered to fill them, as a wonderful high school teacher named Jack McGiffert had once tried to fill me.
To see whether Mr. McGiffert had been an exception, though, I gave my quiz to the other writing teachers in the department. The older they were, the better they did. The youngest teacher, who was working on his doctoral dissertation in English Literature and is now a tenured professor, scored as poorly as my class had.
Well, what does all this mean except that each generation has its own language, its own poetry? After Felicia Lamport gave my test to her students they made up a test for her, with questions like, "We all live in a yellow _____." She only got two right.
This misses the point, though. I might have expected my father to be ignorant of Doonesbury, for instance, and he was. He might have expected me to be ignorant of Krazy Kat, and I was. But neither of us was ignorant of Poe and Whitman, Keats and Shelley, as Harvard's freshmen were and no doubt still are.
Still, what's the difference? Poetry is just the latest thing to have dropped off our cultural radar, after all; it joins mythology, the classics and the King James Bible below the horizon. And who cares, anyway?
Margaret are you grieving over golden oldies leaving? Of course you’re not. Who needs artifacts from the primitive dawn of communications technology when there’s a reality show right up there on the plasma screen?
So, yo, Margaret — This crud's for you.
The whole quiz:
1. I think that I shall never see a poem lovely _________. (three words)
2. But there is no joy in Mudville, mighty Casey ________. (three words)
3. This Bud’s for _____. (one word)
4. Beneath the spreading chestnut tree, the village _______. (two words)
5. You’re a better man than I am, _______. (two words)
6. Good fences make ______. (two words)
7. East is east and west is west, and never the twain ______. (two words)
8. When lilacs last in the dooryard _____. (one word)
9. A little knowledge is a ______. (two words)
10. The boy stood on the burning ______. (one word)
11. In Xanadu did ______. (two words)
12. I met a traveler from an antique _____. (one word)
13. Water, water everywheere, nor any drop ______. (two words)
14. Quoth the raven, _____. (one word)
15. A jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and _____. (one word)
16. Winstons taste good, like a ______. (two words)
17. Half a league, half a league, half a league ______. (one word)
18. The fog comes in on little _______. (two words)
19. But ah, my foes, and, oh, my friends it gives a lovely ______. (one word)
20. In the room the women come and go, talking of ______. (one word)