Monday, January 31, 2011

Blame the Poet

Students usually have fascinating reactions to Millay's "I, being born a woman." Some students totally read their expectations into the poem--the speaker's in love and she really wants him--and don't get beyond that. Some still want to think that the speaker's a male, at least for a while.

But this semester, I had a bunch of students who blamed the speaker for not taking responsibility for the "relationship."

It's as if they've never had carnal thoughts about someone they didn't want to have a relationship with. Or they've never admitted even to themselves that they've had carnal thoughts. Or sex.

And yet, evidence suggests that students today do have sex, just as students in my generation did. And in the generation before. Sex among students wasn't invented in 1967, but it didn't end in 1980, either.

It's a rough reminder that I, too, was a prude at 18. I probably would have thought that this speaker should keep her pants zipped. (Though I wouldn't at least have idealized the idea that she should get married as a "need.")

Perhaps this one should be up there with Austen as something people should reread after 30?


  1. So, this has little to do with your overall point, but this post inspired me to go find the poem, because I'd never read it before, and I just had to say that that I LOVE that poem.

    (I think I would have loved it at 18, too, but that may be idealizing myself a little.)

    Anyway, thanks for introducing me to that!

  2. What's the ethos set by the group leaders in that class? Perhaps the other think they have to be prudes in public at least in order to survive.

  3. I'm with New Kid--I just looked it up and where has this poem been all my life???

    I find this frenzy insufficient reason
    For conversation when we meet again.

    LOVE IT!

    As to your students' reaction: I find it baffling too. For all of their pornification and the women's willingness to perform for men's pleasure, it is sad that the young people in your class are so alienated from female desire.

    I wonder if this is somehow related to Tenured Radical's post from yesterday (1/30/11) about her students' yen for essay "prompts" and their intellectual timidity? I don't have this all worked out it my head--I'm just suggesting it to you in case you or your readers want to read TR's post and ponder the connections.

  4. Another poem to throw into conversation with Millay:

  5. These were short reaction responses, typed ahead of class (and not all students did them, since they're informal and students have to do five out of ten possible writing choices).

    I read TR's post. :) Conversations about students learning how to write are big among those of us who teach writing a lot. It's great that lots of people throughout academics are thinking more about how to help students learn better writing skills at all levels.

  6. I just ran into the same wall of polite "euphemism" about an hour ago teaching the opening of Their Eyes Were Watching God -- happens every semester, so I'm used to it. And I'm teaching that Millay poem later this semester in a different class where I assume I'll encounter a similar reaction.

    There are two things I can add to the conversation. First, I'd caution against underestimating how relationship oriented this generation of students is. Second, I teach at four different schools, each occupying a different station on the socio-cultural ladder, and the reactions to these issues/texts vary according to each school in intriguing ways.

  7. Add me to the historians who had missed this one. They didn't teach THAT when I was in high school.

    I suspect that -- being 18 -- they haven't necessarily admitted to themselves that sometimes lust is just lust. I think Christopher is right, they place it in the context of relationship...

  8. I was very fortunate not to discover this poem until I was over 30 myself. But my students respond well to it, perhaps because I'm a bad influence or perhaps because they don't expect me to be teaching it.

    What's maybe more depressing than the prudery is the student-y insistence on talking about the speaker of the poem and what she "really" wants, as opposed to the poem's speech. Are they just arguing based on first principles or "common sense" about human psychology? Because if they need to hang their readings on language, those fourteen lines don't leave them many hooks.

  9. I didn't know it before either, but gotta say I love it, but weird what you're getting - I would have probably related to it a lot more at 18. I mean, isn't that when you are doing all the degrading hooking up usually? Then you grow up and stop doing the fun-but-bad-for-you things.

    I'm wondering if there is some kind of backlash from all that True Love Waits type stuff, that they are still walking around thinking sex=love? I'm wondering. It was very much present at my high school (ahem, a while ago).

    Incidentally, what kind of poem is this? Some kind of sonnet?

  10. Yes, Sarah, a sonnet!

  11. Yes, but what kind?

  12. Ah, well, let's see. When I think of kinds, I start with punctuation and rhyme scheme, and then the volta.


    So, rhyme scheme and punctuation-wise, it's got a rather Italian form, two abba quatrains forming a sentence, and then a sestet (cdecde). Volta-wise, there's a strong sense of volta-ness after the octet, when she gets to the "Think not" bit. She's turning the problem back on itself.

    On the other hand, there's also a sense of volta-ness with the final pair of lines, but I think it's less strong than at the octet/sestet split.

    So, for me, this feels like an Italian sonnet.

    Does that make sense?