High School English Teacher Meets Xanadu

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-some decree
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to msn
Down to a sunless sea (1)

I asked a high school teacher

If we would study this poem
Along with other poems by Coleridge

Immediately —
“No.
It’s an opium dream
It has no underlying meaning.”

And that was that
I was unprepared for his response
So I could neither process the language quickly
Nor come up with an original reply
With or without words

He thought the knowledge was so obvious
It needed no explaining
If it needed no explaining, then
Why do I remember the conversation
Twenty years later?
A memory of a school
I spent all of three months at
And remember little of the outer world
Only my inner experiences?
Why would my brain pick that
Out of the daily low level bullying by teachers
To remember?

Where Alph, the sacred river, ran

Through caverns measureless to man
Down to the sunless sea (1)
I don’t have to go to Xanadu to find
Caverns measureless to man
I can find them in my mind
Those caverns hold sensory memories
That I have no conscious access to
But inform everything I do
I’m certain my father had the caverns too
But they were scattered on the winds when he died

I am no expert
In the interpretation of poetry
But there is an intense longing there
For a world that cannot be

And if I can wonder these things at thirteen
While a middle-aged teacher mocks me
For even having the thoughts
“It’s meaningless because I can’t
Personally find the meaning!”
Then what is the real problem here?

For I now have the longing
To explore the caverns in my father’s mind
As intense as any desire of a poet
To catch up with a beautiful dream left behind

If not more so
Because his caverns were imaginary
And my father’s unimaginably real
I know they’re real
I have them myself

The poem is about longing
For something gone that can
Never be replaced
And my father is dead and can never be replaced

Good enough,
Mr. Smart Ass English Teacher?
Oh well
My dad never got along
with English teachers either.
And even opium dreams
Can have meaning.

What’s that – you fear me
Because I’m from your future?

Because time ain’t supposed to
Work that way
And I’m fixin’ to tell you you’re wrong

What are all these books you teach

If not time travel portals into the eyes
Of future women, men, and other adults?
Boys, girls, and other children?
You think they wrote the book of Ecclesiastes
So only one generation of literate people
Could read it?
No, they wrote it for posterity

And it’s not the only one
The Epic of Gilgamesh
The Pyramid Texts
The Book of Going Forth By Day
The Shewings of Julian of Norwich
The Dark Night of the Soul

The Poetic and Prose Eddas
These things all had meaning
That stood the test of time
So I am time-traveling as much as any poet
Back to you, Mr. English Teacher
(I have forgotten your name.)
To tell you
What you never bothered to figure out
Because you were too preoccupied
With your desire to be a coach
Rather than a teacher
(Why are there always those
Among English and math teachers,
Who wish, and act as if, they are
Coaching football or something?)
I know now why I had the attachment
To Kubla Khan
Because I could identify with the longing
I could identify with the caverns
And identifying with things
Is both the magic and the horror
Of adolescence
Sensitive teachers know that
You were as insensitive as a brick wall
And I know that there was another layer
To what you were telling me
I’d heard the rumors passed around
By students and teachers alike
That I was a drug user
(I wasn’t, not yet
I became one
Because of the rumors though.)
You were also saying
“You are a worthless drug user.”
You just said it less directly
Than the teachers who were willing
To say it outright
A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian maid,
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ‘twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice! (1)
 
What child with communication problems
Could not identify with these lines?
I had such a yearning
To tell people so many things
That were inside me
And no means to get more than
A tiny fraction
To come out in words
Usually, at that age, poetry
Many autistic children
Find their first true communication (2)
In writing lists of words
Or echoing music
Or writing poetry
And we identify with
The universal struggles of poets
To write about that
Which can’t be put into words
If you couldn’t imagine
That there were layers of meaning
In a poem by a famous poet
Of all things
Then you never deserved
A job teaching students about poetry

___________________

(1) Excerpt from “Kubla Khan”, a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
(2) Many autistic children appear to communicate, but either are not actually communicating, or are communicating much less of the time than you would imagine.  We learn to mimic word-based communication without understanding that word-based communication involves translating the inside of our minds into words for the outside world to see and potentially respond to.  So in order to communicate for real, I had to do several things:
  • Suppress dysfunctional language that was not communicative but often sounded identical to communication
  • Match language to my thoughts or experiences
  • Get that language out in speech or writing
  • Continuing, the whole time, to suppress dysfunctional speech and language and keep it “out of the way” so the real language can come through
And for many of us, much of this process is something that has to happen at least partially unconsciously because we lack the processing ability to hold all that in our conscious minds.  For people who have these problems, for whatever reason, we often communicate best by echolalia, by echoing music we have heard, or by writing poetry lists of words.
There’s an intermediate stage for some of us.   It’s non-deliberate verbal communication where we don’t realize that what we’re doing is communication.  It involves the repetition of words, phrases, sentences, or songs (whole songs or verses), that we have learned to associate with certain situations, but that we haven’t realized is a way to tell other people what is going on in our heads.  Sometimes the poetry we write can be part of that stage as well.
Anyway, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, like many poets, struggled to recall and communicate the ineffable, in his case a dream that cut off and left his poem incomplete.  Autistic poets share that universal poetic struggle, but on top of it we often have a separate struggle going on, almost to the point of being a battle, with language as communication.  So anything that portrays any part of that struggle in a way that we can understand, we’re likely to identify with it pretty strongly, whether the author we are reading is autistic or not.
Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s