It was brought to poet Sara Holbrook’s attention that one of her poems is used to test Texas students on a standardized test. Holbrook looked at the questions being asked. She can’t answer them.
Sara Holbrook | Image Via Loganberry Books
It all started when an eighth grade teacher from Texas emailed Holbrook, asking her how many stanzas were in her poem. He needed to know in order for his students to answer practice questions. However, the poem wasn’t formatted correctly. The question was:
DIVIDING THE POEM INTO TWO STANZAS ALLOWS THE POET TO―
A) compare the speaker’s schedule with the train’s schedule.
B) Ask questions to keep the reader guessing about what will happen
C) contrast the speaker’s feelings about weekends and Mondays
D) incorporate reminders for the reader about where the action takes place.
C) is allegedly the correct answer, but Holbrook is unconvinced. According to her, “I just put that stanza break in there because when I read it aloud (I’m a performance poet), I pause there. Note: that is not an option among the answers because no one ever asked me why I did it.”
That isn’t offered as an answer because poetic interpretation can’t be broken down into multiple choice. You cannot discuss a poem as “either this or that is the case.” Instead, making meaning of a poem depends on a kind of spectrum of possibility. By putting the stanza break here, Holbrook could be trying to do this, but she could also be trying to do this. No serious reader of poetry sees anything as black and white. That’s the beauty, the point even, of poetry. No easy answers.
And for Holbrook, the WRITER of the poem in question, the answers are far from easy. Here is an excerpt of her poem “Midnight” and its corresponding question:
. . . And I meander to its rhythm,
flopping like a fish.
Why can’t I get to sleep?
Why can’t I get to sleep?
14. The poet uses a simile in lines 23 and 24 to reveal that the speaker —
F wants to be outside G cannot get comfortable H does not like fishing J might be having a dream
To do a proper analysis of any poem’s use of abstract imagery, an interpreter would need hundreds of words. Four brief choices on a scantron do not do justice to the spectrum of meaning that any metaphor creates.
Holbrook says, “I can’t answer the questions on my own poetry.” Neither can I. In your position, neither could anybody. Of course, the victim here isn’t Holbrook. The victims are the students and teachers expected to make sense of quantifying poetic interpretation. Not only is it impossible to decipher what the test maker thinks the correct answer is, it’s actively ruining poetry in young people. They’re being taught (to no fault of the teachers) that one’s reading of a poem is either right or wrong. To this I’d say pick up Gertrude Stein and tell me what exactly “A rose is a rose is a rose” means. There just isn’t one way to interpret poetry.