…or another Ken Long story.
One of the things I learned in doing my adult education degree is that people process new information based on their individual experiences and accumulated knowledge. Each of us absorbs (or rejects) information in a different way, and if we reflect on new information against our own life experiences, we can come to a more meaningful understanding. If new knowledge is meaningful to us, it changes us somehow. In education circles, that’s called transformative learning.
I didn’t know or really care about any of that when I went to university the first time. All I knew was that I was ten years older than most of my lecture hall peers, and I felt out of touch and out of place. But my first English professor, Ken Long, taught me about transformative learning a most impactful way.
So there are my classmates and me, wearing all manner of perplexed expressions as Long tries to get us to analyze this poem by E. E. Cummings:
"next to of course god america i
love you land of the pilgrims' and so forth oh
say can you see by the dawn's early my
country tis of centuries come and go
and are no more what of it we should worry
in every language even deafanddumb
thy sons acclaim your glorious name by gorry
by jingo by gee by gosh by gum
why talk of beauty what could be more beaut-
iful than these heroic happy dead
who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter
they did not stop to think they died instead
then shall the voice of liberty be mute?"
He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water
Most people are shifting in their seats, trying to translate the disjointed sentences and punctuation that was, if not absent, used in odd (wrong) ways. Surely the thing is derogatory. Or, maybe it isn’t?
But Long is trying to get us to look deeper– what is the *point* of the disjointed sentences used together? What emotions are evident in the poem? How many voices is the poem reflecting?
So then he turns to that most powerful conveyor of meaning, metaphor:
“Think about Jimi Hendrix’s guitar solo of the Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock.”
Long looks back out to the sea of blank faces – and maybe he saw mine in the midst of them, smiling under the light bulb that had been switched on above my head. Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!
In one instant, because of my awareness of that historic rock and roll moment, I could see that Cummings is satirizing false patriotism created by catchphrases and concepts, and I see him suggesting that his beloved country is less free because of those that blindly ascribe to those phrases and concepts while calling those that don’t, unpatriotic.
I wasn’t old enough to remember Woodstock directly, but I knew all about the event, I had seen the video and heard Hendrix’s controversial solo many times, and I knew he was playing to an audience that was critical of the Viet Nam war in particular, and questioning of the “establishment” in general, and were often called un-American for it. I had felt the emotion in that solo, and could tell that it reflected both love for his country, mourning for lives lost in war, and a critical disdain for an administration’s use of a bunch of symbols wrapped up in a national anthem to form such a narrow definition of loyalty and patriotism.
It was with mild amusement that I saw that none of the 19 year-olds in the room seemed to have any idea of what the professor was talking about. If they knew who Jimi Hendrix was, or if they’d heard of that solo, the connection sure wasn’t gelling.
For me though, that professor shed light – again – on my power as an adult learner, showing me how my own experiences and life-acquired knowledge framed my critical perspective, and could make new learning richer and more meaningful.
Oh, and there was that other little writing/art/life lesson too – the power of the metaphor. I must say, to this day that particular metaphor of a most beautiful guitar player reflecting the meaning in an e.e. cummings poem, is still my favourite. Let's call it beautiful thing number 36.