Before I Taught a Poem I’d Ask to Know

by Michael Pronko

In my survey of American Literature class, I’ve always enjoyed reading student responses. Typically, students respond with the smooth predictability of Japanese mass education. When we read women’s poems, students tell me how women are oppressed. When we read an e.e. cummings poem, they love the childish play of language. An excerpt from Kerouac brings out their wanderlust, and studying anti-war songs brings the inevitable, “war is bad.”

I read their responses on the train home, or later that evening, and give them feedback with that teacherly confidence most teachers acquire. I teach. Students learn. Done.

But once a semester, that gets undone. It always happens with Robert Frost’s well-known, often-taught poem, “Mending Wall.” It’s a simple (I thought) poem about walls and neighbors. I chose it for being accessible and being a good re-read. But what I get from students confuses and unsettles me. Something there is that doesn’t love a teacher’s confidence, that wants it down.

My high school English classroom in Kansas had a poster on the wall of Frost’s craggy, kindly face next to a quote from the poem, “Before I built a wall, I’d ask to know.” I took the poem as a basic precept for venturing into the world. Don’t be afraid to question things or take things apart. I took walls as something to spend my life breaking down. I wanted a wall-less life. And mostly, I got one. I traveled, married, worked, and befriended far beyond the walls of my youth.

But my students don’t always read the poem like I do. They often praise walls, appreciate them, and argue in favor of their necessity. I mean, praise walls? I can’t believe it. For me, the poem preached the gospel of freedom. Embrace the other in honest rapport. But for some students, the poem is a reminder to be wary. They argue for staying distant, reserved, and quiet.

The plainspoken neighborliness of the flat plains of Kansas where I grew up has a much shorter legacy than that of the intricate relations and hierarchies of Japanese society. Were the students and I, on opposite sides of the poem’s wall, just acting out some archetypal differences? Was this some culture clash, or just a different set of personal readings?

I give my students a choice of questions to discuss and write about.

  1. How is the neighbor’s character different from the narrator’s? Which do you like better?
  2. Which saying do you agree with more: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall” OR “Good fences make good neighbors”?
  3. What kind of walls do you have in your life? What do you build your “walls” with?

Everyone agrees on the first question. They dislike the neighbor, “an old-stone savage armed,” who “moves in darkness” and will not “go behind his father’s saying.” He’s a dull sod, unthinking, conservative, and unimaginative. They like the narrator, a clever wordsmith who questions, jokes, and thinks broadly. It’s obvious who the good guy is.

Students also leap in on the third question, too, offering laments about the walls surrounding them—language, family, school, their own shyness and chronic indecision. They’ve got a lot of walls and seem practiced at cataloguing them.

But with the second question, more than half side with the saying of the neighbor, “Good fences make good neighbors.” The line is repeated twice in the poem, as is the opposing idea, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” When asked to choose, most favor the side of fences, walls, and replacing the fallen boulders. That always stuns me.

Of course, some students translate the neighbor’s saying into Japanese and then back to English. They find 親しき仲にも礼儀あり (Shitashiki naka nimo reigi ari) on the internet and copy-paste the re-translation, “There is courtesy even among close friends.” That doesn’t sound too bad, but it’s no different from the neighbor in the poem who “will not go behind his father’s saying.” This ping-pong of meanings starts to move farther from the poem, not into it.

Overall, I have to admit, students make pretty good arguments for walls:

We tend to make the wall for people we meet for the first time and seniors, because if we interact with them with no walls, that’s a rude behavior, and maybe breaks the relationship between us. So, people use honorific as a wall of respect.

I think “fences” appears in this saying as appropriate distances or rules like courtesy in relationships.

I think good relationship needs appropriate distance. When you get too close to someone, you start seeing the negative sides to their personality. I think that giving space can maintain a better relationship.

I don’t think it’s always a good idea to reveal everything about yourself to someone. In my opinion, a good sense of distance builds a good relationship because we don’t expose everything about ourselves, even to those who are close.

I agree with “Good fences makes good neighbors” because most Japanese people like to keep distance with others especially strangers or people who do not know well. I have heard that there is culture that people talk to each other even they do not know each other in other country. However, people do not like talking to strangers in Japan.

No matter how close we are, there are some things we never want to be known or stepped into. And if we cross that borderline of not wanting to be trespassed, it could lead to a fight. That is why I think it is very important to draw the line of the wall from the beginning.

I can sense students articulating an awareness of the delicate structure of relationships. I’m impressed with their searching for a more refined and manageable way of interacting. Maybe Japanese relationships really are more complex, but I just can’t see that from my American side of the wall.

I’m always careful to tell them that with literature there are no “right” answers. And yet, there must be better or worse answers. This is not a poem about baseball or bicycles. It’s about human relationships, types of characters, ways of living in the world, of working with others, and about how we distance ourselves, or let barriers fall. Like the narrator in the poem, I want them to at least wonder, “Why do walls make good neighbors?”

But maybe it is me who is culture-bound. I don’t want to judge their responses from my American point of view, but I feel exasperated at their closed-in-ness. I’ve always seen literature as a liberating force, not a guide to manners. Isn’t there some Platonic ideal of wall-less-ness? Or is that just my fantasy of freedom? Maybe my overweening belief in the rightness of always connecting stops me from seeing the other side?

Some students, of course, hate walls, and write about how confining they are. Like me, they long to get beyond them. I nod in smug satisfaction at the similarity of our thoughts. But I also stop to wonder about the wall-loving students. Are they really conservative, afraid-of-the-world types, too shy to speak up in class? Are they just answering what they thought was the expected answer, the safe reply? Are they building a wall to protect their walls? Am I?

The wall-loving students seem to be searching for walls that prevent them from being imposed on, that don’t strand them in a field of obligations. Walls in dense Asian cities mean something very different than in the pine forests and apple orchards of New England. In the densely packed cities of Tokyo and Yokohama, walls are a relief from the constant stream of people, choices, and demands. When people live close, walls become a shield from surrounding eyes, safeguarding independence and protecting privacy.

And at nineteen or twenty years old, that’s important for students trying out new relationships and making tough decisions for themselves. Maybe a little distancing helps with all that, shielding them from failure or shame, and allowing them a moment to think before engaging.

But then I also think they’re just unwilling to step outside their safe confines and confront the world. Japanese students seem so reluctant to open up, and way too comfortable staying walled inside themselves. Their walls are cemented by the craving for comfort. Don’t they want to see what would happen on the other side? With all those walls, how do they ever open up to bigger ideas, to friendships, to action, to love?

Then again, maybe I’ve been using the poem as an elaborate, rather adolescent, defense for all my own wall-jumping. Maybe I need to examine my walls more closely. I tend to leave too many boulders behind. The students seem to focus on building the right walls, an oddly mature insight, while I’ve always reveled in that “something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down.”

I realize now that having students as neighbors in learning, language, and literature involves shifting the focus from the wall to the mending, from the static singularity of words on a page to multiple, fluid meanings. When that something that wants the wall down gets it down, then what’s left is just the meeting there. I’ve started to think that it’s that moment of meeting, of talking and working that is the point of the poem, not the wall.

Reading the poem with students every semester at “spring mending-time” brings the students to the wall for the first time, and me for the umpteenth time. Like the two characters of the poem, “On a day we meet to walk the line/And set the wall between us once again.” Together, we pick up the boulders—of words, questions, reactions, and discoveries—and set them gently into place. It’s a re-building, done together.

The difficult thing is the dual focus—building up and breaking down—two parts of the same process. Literature positions readers inside and outside, as in a dream, constructing meanings in one place and taking apart meanings in another. Poems can get us to think and talk concretely, and yet allow us to be satisfied answering some “why’s” with nothing more than “something there is.” 

I look forward to the wall-accepters now, though my heart remains with the wall-rejecters. They both teach me. I learn.

As a teacher, I always try to “ask to know what I was walling in, or walling out,” and try to get students to do that, too. Misunderstandings leave “our fingers rough with handling them,” but also lead us to a clearer understanding of what we’re doing, or not doing. The more we think we know what we’re teaching, the more we’re shown our misconceptions and prejudices. That is how our teaching souls are revealed. Some walls come down and better ones go up and we see ourselves on both sides.