Students’ Reading

When my students read a poem or story, they invariably create suppositions about the characters / plot to flatten out ambiguities. They are very uncomfortable with ambiguities. I was using the Lucinda Williams song "Changed the Locks" yesterday in creative writing to demonstrate parallel syntax & repetition. (I'll get to Whitman, traditionalists need not hyperventilate.) The song's third verse is:

I changed the kind of car I drive so you can't see me when I go by And you can't chase me up the street and you can't knock me off of my feet. I changed the kind of car I drive. This comes after veerses in the same structure with the lines, "I changed the locks on my front door" & "I changed the number on my phone." Most students in the class were reluctant to see the combination of violence & eroticism in the pharse "knock me off my feet," erasing it in favor of a purely sentimental reading. And when pushed, they would begin to make up stories that have no warrent in the text of the song: "Well, maybe she . . ." I have found this response almost universal among my creative writing & literature students.

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.

2 thoughts on “Students’ Reading”

  1. That’s a great song to use in class! I am both amazed and not surprised at the same time by the students’ desire to turn away from the literal, violent reading of “knock me off my feet.”

    What makes it unsurprising is that, in my experience, many student readers of literature always want to move to the metaphorical level as soon as they can. It’s related to their idea that they want to know what the text “means.”

  2. Yeah, I’ve noticed that “move to the metaphorical” as well. To me, though, the process I describe has something to do with collapsing ambiguity. After all, what makes “knock me off my feet” powerful in this context is precisely its double meaning.

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