The way I remember the “No Soap, Radio” prank, it went like this: You’re in elementary school and you gather a bunch of kids, all of whom are secretly in on the joke except for one kid (who is the target of the prank), and you tell a story about how an alligator and a hippopotamus are in a bathtub. You’re supposed to go on for a long while, describing the water and the scrub brushes and the tiles on the wall and everything, and then eventually the alligator asks the hippo for the soap. That’s when you have the hippo deliver the line, “No soap—radio,” and then you stop abruptly to wait for a reaction. Now, the line “No soap, radio” isn’t actually funny in the context of the story—it doesn’t even make sense—but all the kids who are in on the prank just laugh like it’s hilarious anyway. They laugh, in fact, until the one ignorant kid starts to laugh, too. The kid laughs in order to fit in. And then everyone laughs at that kid for pretending to get a joke that doesn’t make any sense. That’s the prank part.
This tradition developed because kids are sometimes assholes.
What I’m thinking about lately is that grown-ups—and, specifically, grown-up poets—are sometimes assholes, too.
I say this as a poet, myself. I love poetry.
I write poetry.
I teach poetry.
And when I teach poetry, I’m constantly trying to help my students really appreciate poetry, mainly by having them undo all the work their previous teachers have done for them.
They’ve had teachers who treat poems like secret codes that have to be broken. They’ve been taught to see poems as walnuts, where the poem and its language make up the inedible shell and which you can only enjoy if you remove that shell to get the nourishing message inside. These teachers don’t teach poetry; they teach students to translate perfectly good poems into boring, neutered (and probably fallacious) take-home life lessons. (“So, kids, what Robert Frost is trying to say is that it’s better to make unconventional choices!”)
Other teachers spend all their time droning on about the poet’s biography, until the student eventually forgets that there’s a poem anywhere nearby, or—at best—the readers come to see the poem as a biographical artifact (like a poet’s favorite hat or necklace) rather than as an object of interest on its own terms.
The alternative I offer my students is to try to have an experience with the poem—emotional, intellectual, whatever—without trying to boil it down into an aphorism or disappearing into historical context or the life story of the poet. If the poem moves easily and is full of soothing images and sounds, for example, the student is entitled to have a pleasant experience without “getting” the poem (i.e., without being able to articulate its “story” or “message” or even its subject matter); if the poem is jagged and full of harshness and surprise, on the other hand, the student can viscerally experience the chaos of that without having to call up Wikipedia or Cliffs Notes (is Cliffs Notes still a thing?) for help. And so on. That, I tell them, is the way to read a poem—to take it for what it is, to engage it directly—what does it feel like to read it?—and without filters. And they do have some real experiences that way.
But this approach is also what makes me an asshole.
Take, for example, Sylvia Plath. I’ve taught her work, and when I do—especially given that it’s Plath—I definitely don’t want to get us bogged down in biography; the study of Plath can often end up more like a gossip session than like a real study of her work. And think about it: when Plath was sending her work out to magazines, she wasn’t expecting editors or readers to know anything about her—or to need to know anything—aside from what they could find in the poem itself. And so my plan has been to just avoid talking about her life, and to ask the students to read her poems as naively as possible.
Yet that’s the hypocrisy; do I read Plath’s work as naively as possible? Obviously not—I know a lot about Plath’s life, in fact, and I have no doubt that my knowledge adds richness and helpful context and clarity—yes, clarity—to my reading of poems like “Lady Lazarus” or “Daddy” or the beekeeping series. But I apparently don’t want my students to have access to that.
Wouldn’t they benefit from knowing a little bit of what I know? Let’s be honest: doesn’t Plath’s poem “Ariel” make a lot more basic sense if you know that it’s about (at a literal level) riding a horse? Isn’t that why The Observer originally published it under the title “The Horse”? Again, Plath didn’t want the reader to have that information laid out for them, or else she would have titled it “The Horse” herself. And yet those of us in the know can read that poem with horses on the brain. And we can nonetheless demand that other people try to navigate the poem without the knowledge we have. (Or, uglier still, we can leave them confused until we suddenly reveal the secret, making the insider-outsider divide as vivid as possible.)
This doesn’t apply just to dead, famous poets. I mean, you might think, well, when you read the work of some regular contemporary poet, you don’t have access to a stack of biographies and interviews and critical analyses of the poems, and you do have to engage the poems just as they are, on the page. And that’s true; in that situation, you’re left with what I claim, as a teacher, is the ideal reading situation: just you and the poem, without any filters. The expectation is that you have all you need.
But have you ever been to a poetry reading? Most of us poets preface each poem we read with a pile of information and context, explaining obscure words and references, laying out the subject matter, talking about why we care about the topic and why we wrote the poem, making explicit the ways in which the poem builds off other poems, and so on. Sometimes we spend more time prefacing than we do reading the actual poem. As a result, when my students attend poetry readings (usually because I make them), they come back and say, “You know, it’s a lot easier to understand poetry when they give you that inside knowledge.” Which is obvious. That obviousness is why poets, when we’re put on the spot there at the podium, seem to feel the need for some explanation. And yet, when we publish our poems in magazines and books, we usually don’t include any guidance for the reader at all—guidance that even us professional poets might like to have as we read.
Many of my students—even creative writing students—say that they don’t particularly like poetry, mainly because they don’t “get” it, and in this way they are much like the general reading public (let alone the public that doesn’t read much). My temptation is to blame the teachers who have turned poetry into an IQ test, one with definite right and wrong answers. But I should probably be glad that these students, unlike most of the kids who got caught by the “No Soap, Radio” joke, have the maturity and self-confidence to allow them to say they don’t get it. And maybe I should be blaming us, the poets, for being like those childhood assholes, for constructing the IQ test in the first place, and then refusing to give them the tools they need in order to pass.
David Ebenbach is the author of eight books of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, including, most recently, the novel How to Mars (Tachyon Publications, 2021) and the poetry collection Some Unimaginable Animal (Orison Books, 2019). He teaches at Georgetown University. Visit him at www.davidebenbach.com. (updated 6/2021)
Ebenbach founded the AGNI blog in 2015 and edited it until 2019.