Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Reflection on Dead Poets Society and Whitman's Poem, O Life!

from Dead Poets Society:
*Literature teacher Keating waited a moment to let the lesson sink in. Then Keating grabbed onto his own throat and screamed horribly. "AHHHHGGGGG!!" he shouted.

"Refuse! Garbage! Pus! Rip it out of your books. Go on, rip out the entire page! I want this rubbish in the trash where it belongs!"


So begins Dead Poetry Society, a troubling, but powerful movie that grabs us by the throat with unexpected shock--a teacher telling students to rip pages out of their expensive hardbound literature books.

Caution: I didn’t like the movie’s depressing climax--though I do admit that it is realistic, reminding me of the tragedies of students' lives here where I taught literature for many years. One brilliant girl cut herself repeatedly, responding to the emotional abuse of her often absent father.

Nor do I agree with some of the film's philosophical and ethical points. Like most Hollywood movies, it seems to glorify various ethically wrong actions.


Robin Williams as teacher, John Keating, dramatically inspires and is life-changing. Williams creates an incredible acting performance as the idealistic professor at a strict New England prep school.

The character, Keating, reminds me of one of our most creative teachers back when I was a naive teen growing up in Lincoln, Nebraska. Our teacher, Mr. Keene, (yes, that was his real name:-) had a similar eccentric, quirky humorous, thought-provoking way of taking us beyond rote learning, of making texts jolt alive and getting us plunged ocean-deep into thinking, reflecting, and creating.

From the screen play:
*The following morning John Keating sat in a chair beside his desk. His mood seemed serious and quiet.
"Boys," he said as the class bell rang, "open your Pritchard text to page 21 of the introduction. Mr. Perry" - he gestured toward Neil - "kindly read aloud the first paragraph of the preface entitied 'Understanding Poetry'."

The boys found the pages in their text, sat upright, and followed as Neil read:
"Understanding Poetry, by Dr. j. Evans Pritchard, PhD. To fully understand poetry, we must first be fluent with its meter, rhyme, and figures of speech, then ask two questions:
1) How artfully has the objective of the poem been rendered and
2) How important is that objective?

Question 1 rates the poem's perfection, question 2 rates its importance.
Once these questions have been answered, determining the poem's greatness becomes a relatively simple matter. If the poem's score for perfection is plotted on the horizontal of a graph and its importance is plotted on the vertical, then calculating the total area of the poem yields the measure of its greatness.

A sonnet by Byron might score high on the vertical but only average on the horizontal. A Shakespearean sonnet, on the other hand, would score high both horizontally and vertically, yielding a massive total area, thereby revealing the poem to be truly great."

Keating rose from his seat as Neil read and went to the blackboard. He drew a graph, demonstrating by lines and shading, how the Shakespeare poem would overwhelm the Byron poem.

Neil continued reading. "As you proceed through the poetry in this book, practice this rating method. As your ability to evaluate poems in this manner grows, so will your enjoyment and understanding of poetry."

Neil stopped, and Keating waited a moment to let the lesson sink in. Then Keating grabbed onto his own throat and screamed horribly. "AHHHHGGGGG!!"

"Refuse! Garbage! Pus! Rip it out of your books. Go on, rip out the entire page! I want this rubbish in the trash where it belongs!"

He grabbed the trash can and dramatically marched down the aisles, pausing for each boy to deposit the ripped page from his book. The whole class laughed and snickered.

"Make a clean tear," Keating cautioned. "I want nothing left of it! Dr.j. Evans Pritchard, you are disgraceful!" The laughter grew, and...

Keating strutted back to the front of the room, put the trash can on the floor and jumped into it. The boys laughed louder.

Fire danced in Keating's eyes. He stomped the trash a few times, then stepped out and kicked the can away.

"This is battle, boys," he cried. "War! You are souls at a critical juncture. Either you will succumb to the will of academic hoi polloi, and the fruit will die on the vine - or you will triumph as individuals.

"Have no fear, you will learn what this school wants you to learn in my class; however, if I do my job properly, you will also learn a great deal more. For example, you will learn to savor language and words because no matter what anyone tells you, words and ideas have the power to change the world."

Keating slammed his hand on the wall behind him, and the sound reverberated like a drum. The entire class jumped and turned to the rear.

"Well," Keating whispered defiantly. "I say - drivel! One reads poetry because he is a member of the human race, and the human race is filled with passion! Medicine, law, banking - these are necessary to sustain life. But poetry, romance, love, beauty? These are what we stay alive for!"

"To quote from Whitman, "O me! O life!... of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless... of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?"

"Answer. That you are here - that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play *goes on* and you may contribute a verse."

"What will your verse be?"

Later, in the film, Keating emphasizes the romantic and pagan manifesto: "Carpe Diem."

If "Carpe Diem" means "Live Up Today" in the usual secular meaning, then it isn't a worthy lesson to teach students. Think of how many young people wasted their lives because they took that sort of advice in the last few generations.

However, one can--with a little creative license--turn Keating's meaning into one of deep significance, "Carpe Transcendence."

The latter is what the social activist, peacemaker, and reconciler Thich Nhat Hanh means when he writes:

In the Light,

Daniel Wilcox

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