I have nothing against Halloween customs, but I dislike bobbing for apples. That’s my name for a habit that makes classroom discussion more difficult and less productive than it should be. A student who bobs for apples might offer the following observations in discussion:
The speaker in T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is asking someone he loves to go for a walk: “Let us go then, you and I.”In each case the bobber, largely or wholly unprepared, has bent down and come up with something. Someone who had read these works (and accompanying assignment pages, full of guidance) would not — could not — make the bobber’s mistakes. The possibility that Prufrock can speak to anyone but himself (much less that he is in love) is one that the poem belies at every moment; the “overwhelming question,” whatever form it might take, is one that never gets asked. The father in Hayden’s poem has “cracked hands that ached / from labor in the weekday weather”; the poem’s “offices” are the lonely rites the father performs for the members of his household: building fires, shining shoes. And in Sappho’s poem, pronouns make clear the object of the poet’s desire: the man is seated next to “you,” and it’s the sound of “your” delightful laughter and one glance at “you” that leave the poet unable to speak.
The father in Robert Hayden’s poem “Those Winter Sundays” works in an office.
The poet in Sappho’s fragment 31 sees the man she loves talking with another woman.
Bobbing for apples makes things difficult in several ways. It impedes the give and take of discussion by requiring a teacher to function as an arbiter of interpretive truth, one who must take up the unpleasant task of saying no — or let any old absurdity fly. There’s little point in asking about the basis for the student’s response when no reasonable evidence could be forthcoming: to ask would yield only embarrassment. (What, for instance, could be the evidence that the father works in an office, aside from the glanced-at, not-looked-up word offices?) Another problem: bobbing for apples fosters the notion, especially among students who might not recognize bobbing as such, that literary interpretation is an arbitrary, haphazard affair: to vary the metaphor, a Rorschach test. You see something (or think you do); you say something. Who’s to say whether it’s right or wrong?
One good answer to that question: literary study is typically not about right and wrong. There are many plausible things one might say about a poem, some of which will contradict others. Another answer: every reader of a work of literature — anyone who really reads it — has a say. And to read, really read, one must do much more than bob. Repeated immersions, to the limit of one’s ability to remain underwater: that’s what will let you come up with something worthwhile.
A related post
Zadie Smith on reading
[The examples in this post are from my imagination, not from life.]