Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Importance of Struggling to Understand

In his speech when he was awarded the Emerson-Thoreau Medal, Robert Frost made this poignant aside about his years of struggling with one of Emerson's poems:

"I don't like obscurity and obfuscation, but I do like dark sayings I must leave the clearing of to time. And I don't want to be robbed of the pleasure of fathoming depths for myself."
Robert Frost, "On Emerson." In Selected Prose of Robert Frost. Hyde Cox and Edward Connery Lathem, eds.(New York: Collier, 1968) p.114. (Originally delivered as an address to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences on the occasion of Frost's being awarded the Emerson-Thoreau Medal. Later published in Daedalus, Fall 1959.)
I like Frost's use of "clearing" which still echoes the older meaning of "clear," that is "brighten."  Frost's point is also excellent: simply explaining poetry, or great texts, to students is not enough.  It is often helpful to guide them and to show them hermeneutical tools, or to speak with them about how we ourselves have grappled with texts, but we should be careful about the temptation to explain, since explanations can rob students of the pleasure of discovery.  Poetry has immense value for us, and one -- just one -- of its benefits is the way that it can become the means by which we learn to solve problems that we have never encountered before.

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