In twelfth grade our English class read Milton, Wordsworth, Samuel Pepys, Keats, and Shakespeare. We reluctantly took turns reading aloud, but besides that I don’t think anyone ever said a word, not even when Pepys described the plague and London’s doors marked with a red cross and “Lord have mercy upon us” written there. No, we all kept quiet and refused to let words open the doors of our already diminished young hearts. One day in winter I came late to class and slammed my books hard on my desk at the back of the room. “Poetry!” I screamed, “Poetry! This world is tearing me apart—there’s blood coming from my eyes and ears!” The students turned around in their desks and watched as my fury and outrage turned to tears, my shoulders heaving, my face buried in the fists of my hands. The teacher told the class to wait, took my arm, and escorted me, shaking and unsteady, out of the room. In the empty hallway she congratulated me on my performance as I pulled myself together. When we returned to the room, the teacher explained to the mystified class that she had conspired with me and had asked that I come to class free and unbridled and to give voice to my deepest feelings. That’s what poetry is, she told the class. Bear witness: like the stoical English, we go through our days in deadening silence, hollow men with faces like masks. And like the staid, uncomplaining English, we need our poets. It is for our sake, our teacher said, that the poet wails and laments at roseate dawn, or howls triumphant paeans into the midnight of despair.
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