There's a point in teaching poetry, a particular moment, that I love.
You stalk the classroom demanding opinions, doing buzz sessions on connotation, encouraging text marking, creative interpretations, asking them to make original links between poems, forms, ideas. Asking if there's any poem with a layout that reminds them of jazz music? Whether poems use sound to remind us of states of unreality? Do some poems implicitly finger our culture as purgatorial?
About a third (two thirds if you're lucky and it's the first lesson of the day) of the class buzz and flutter excitedly, as ideas start to pop and bubble around them.
The other kids sit quiet, their faces darkening as they try to follow what's being said. Trying to make their unruly, unwilling minds *know* what the magic secret behind the words is. Carefully glancing across and writing down everyone else's ideas.
And that's when the moment I love arrives.
"There might be some people in the class who feel like the odd one out because they don't know how the others are working out what the lines mean. Actually there are quite a lot of students sitting, trying not to be noticed, because they can't spot an ambiguity when they're asked to, and they have no idea how everyone else has found the answers."
One or two eyes look up, grateful and worried, all at once. No voices or raised hands - who wants to be noticed, when we're feeling stupid?
I agree to let them in on "a secret: We're all MAKING IT UP."
One or two voices, muffled, 'What?'
"We're pretending to know the answer. We're just guessing. We're making it up as we go along. it's all lies. We don't *know*. None of the people speaking out and writing down meanings and patterns *knows* the answer. We just make out as if we do."
That's when it's easy to spot quite how many students had been left behind, were smuggling themselves through the lesson on false pretences in fear that you might think them stupid, because they'll speak now - a chorus of 'what?', a hubbub of 'eh?', 'unnh?' and 'huh?'
"I might say a poem is about religion. You might say a poem is about slavery. I think you're full of it. But guess what? If you can find some evidence, there's not a damn thing I can do about it.
I might think that's the wrongest opinion I ever did see, but I hafta give you the A grade anyway."
By now all the kids who weren't sure of themselves are grinning. Poetry has moved from 'guess what the teacher is thinking' to 'beat the teacher'. Be original.
"There's no such thing as a wrong answer in poetry. There's only answers that you found enough proof for. If you can find some evidence - even if it's just a word or two - then you're right. No matter whether I agree with your idea or not."
No such thing as a wrong answer. Isn't that great?