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Teachers always have to find ways past the preconceptions students bring to class, but that problem intensifies when the subject turns to poetry.  By the time they reach college, most students have been exposed to the extremes in which a poem has only one meaning, as understood by the teacher, or a poem has infinite meanings, and after bouncing between those absurdities students walk into our class either perturbed or apathetic.  Sooner or later, a student says something like, "Well, that's what it means to me," intending that comment as the absolute end of discussion.  The teacher doesn't usually turn to profanity, at least not out loud, but any resulting discussion tends to become more argumentative and defensive on both sides.  It doesn't help that most of us have come through, or are now in, graduate programs that teach us more about being critics than about teaching students, and we all too often show a preference for the literature over the possible needs of the students.  Though in many ways students and our colleagues accept this condition as natural, I think it's a serious breach of our implied contract, sometimes even an explicit breach of the school's mission statement.

With that in mind, I've made an effort to shift my critical approaches to consider how I can use the relationship between the student and the literature in a way that may help each student create both a better sense of identity and a stronger relationship with literature.

Sylvia Plath's poetry may seem an odd choice for discussing how to live given her own personal problems, but that doesn't take away from the ideas we can find in and refine from the poems.  One particular, rather complex, pattern is the relationship between space and motion.  The basic pattern involves how confined or open the space is and how that influences the speed or direction of motion.  However, there are complications depending upon the source of the defining walls and how that influences the reasons for motion.

There is no clear-cut pattern that says open or closed, motion or stasis, is the good or the evil.  Instead, the relationships tie into identity issues, how self-will is being expressed or contained.  In "Winter Landscape, with Rooks," the water moves quickly and in a single direction while defined by the millrace, but when that control is released, the water spreads, loosing both direction and speed.  I've watched a similar shift on a smaller scale when students who have always been given writing topics suddenly have to pick their own, or it sometimes strikes on a larger scale for the college experience itself when discipline and definition have always come from the outside.

(confined space/open space)

(rapid motion, stasis)

(forced motion, chosen motion)