On Bart Simpson and Blake’s Tyger

The Tyger

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies.
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp,
Dare its deadly terrors clasp!

When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

William Blake

I have been thinking a lot recently about Bart Simpson who once said the following to his classmates: ‘C’mon people, this poetry ain’t gonna appreciate itself!’ It’s from an early episode of The Simpsons.

In an effort to control the behaviour of their errant son, Homer and Marge agree to Bart trialling a ‘radical, untested and potentially dangerous’ drug called ‘Focusyn’. We see him morph in front of our eyes, moving from delinquent to angel to shivering paranoid wreck in double time. The episode closes with Homer and Marge deciding to take Bart off the drug trial, convinced that a mischievous Bart is better than a quiescent one.Bart speaks the line in question at the midpoint of his story curve, as he reaches his short-lived zenith of manic politeness. He is sitting in class, listening to Mrs Krabappel talking about Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’, when Nelson sees that two dogs are fighting in the playground below. Everyone except Bart rushes to the window to watch. At which point he yells to his classmates to return to the lesson with the line above.

It’s a brilliant joke, not just because we see Bart behaving out of character. It is also absurd, ridiculous. But I happen to think it is true. A poem is a dead thing until a person reads it, then, hopefully, shares it with someone else. Poems do not appreciate themselves. For that we need someone, as Thomas Lux puts it, to love it ‘enough to make you love it’.

It made me think of a lesson I was teaching once on William Blake’s ‘The Tyger’. After reading the poem to the class I chose to ask what pictures went through their minds as I was reading the poem. After a few slightly predictable answers about forests and tigers one boy put up his hand and said this: ‘I think it is about a big forest and a little forest. The little forest is trapped inside the big forest and is struggling to escape from it. It is a real struggle. Eventually the little forest breaks free and makes its way to edge of the big forest. It looks out.  What it can see on the other side is the First World War.’

There was a silence. Nobody knew what to say next. I thanked the boy for his comment and said that I found it interesting. Then I did something I had not done consciously in my teaching before. Instead of saying what I wanted to say, which was to debate with the boy’s interpretation of the poem, or read another poem perhaps, I asked the class if the boy’s answer had made anyone else think about the poem differently. All their hands went up.

Then I did something else I had not done before: I allowed the children to take control of the discussion. Instead of their comments going through me ‘in the chair’ they began talking and responding to each other, not always in agreement, but with a new energy and purpose.

Each time I think about the way that poems are handled in classrooms I go back to that boy talking about Blake’s Tyger and Bart Simpson hitting on one of the great truths of reader response theory: unless someone reads a poem and interprets it in some way, there is no reading, and there is no poem.

I wonder what models of reading and interpreting poems you have come across, in school and elsewhere?

How have you been encouraged to respond to poems?

What happens when you don’t give the ‘right answer’?

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