My Uncle John loved puns. He was a good guy but those puns were his downfall. He would corner people at restaurants, supermarkets and wedding night consummations and recite those jokes oblivious to the trauma he was inflicting. In a sort of final death blow, he would punctuate each pun by tapping the arm of his victim and asking, “Get it? Clever, ah?”
Just like Uncle John’s puns, I’ve always thought poetry to be the lamest and cruelest form of art. What kind of a person unearths the secret of life and then cloaks it in archaic language and Draconian structure? At least music and prose allow us an entry point to imbue the work with our own perspective. With poetry, we’re left stranded in a corner holding pages filled with inscrutable language and a bunch of Uncle Johns tapping our arms and asking, “Get it? Clever, ah?”
I thought about Uncle John (and my suicide) during a screening of Peter Weir’s Dead Poets Society, a film with a misleading title (SPOILER ALERT: the plot, sadly, does not involve a band of people that seeks out and murders poets.) that harnesses a lot of platitudes about “seizing the day” and “being extraordinary” to poetry and a reckless teacher (played by a thankfully-subdued Robin Williams).
The film focuses on this narcissistic teacher’s use of poetry (and funny voices!) to manipulate his private-school students into conforming to his way of thinking, which champions… nonconformity.
Everyone, except for the administration, the parents, and the producers who receive my death threats, has a blast until one of the students ends up dead (and in a play)! (I forget which is worse.) In the end, the students all betray their master and the audience weeps while I craft beautiful haikus for my mass homicide note.
In an effort to set things right for prep schools, America, and yes, even the poets, I’ve chosen Dead Poets Society for this week’s Fiction vs. Reality.
Just how would this play out in real life? Let’s see.
Scenario # 1
What Happens: Teacher (and abuser) Mr. Keating introduces himself to the class.
Hollywood Version: In lieu of distributing a syllabus, Keating garners the boys’ attention by whistling, showing them photos of dead alumni, and whispering “carpe diem” as if he were a ghost. Then, he demands they address him as O Captain, My Captain. The students and audience are… fascinated.
Reality: According to Liz Hurwitz, clinical psychologist and author of You Say Potato; I say Mental Illness, “This is standard megalomaniac behavior. He needs the approbation of these boys and he will do anything, including tearing down their dreams and illusions of success, to get it. This is how all cult leaders, like David Koresh and Jim Jones, begin. He might as well ask them to call him ‘Abuser.’”
Scenario # 2
What Happens: Mr. Keating asks the students to read aloud a well-articulated essay, written by scholar Dr. Pritchard, that assesses the value of poems.
Hollywood Version: Feeling challenged, Keating engages in a battle of wills… with an essay. After humiliating the paragraphs (by employing funny voices), Keating strong-arms the students into ripping out these sections of the book. No one seems to mind.
Reality # 1: “I can assure you,” asserts Dr. Pritchard, “that my scale for poetry was arrived at with a great deal of consideration. I’m quite aware of the difficulty in assessing the merits of poetry. My equation was presented before a joint committee comprising Nobel laureates and literary scholars. His dismissal of our work in favor of his funny voices is irresponsible.”
Reality # 2: According to Dr. Martin Dean, financial aid director for Wellman Academy, “Mr. Keating’s antics might be amusing, but I can tell you that the cost of replacing those books would preclude our allowing at least 3 students to receive financial aid during that term. For shame, Mr. Keating.”
Scenario # 3
What Happens: A colleague witnesses Mr. Keating’s unorthodox and dangerous teaching methods.
Hollywood Version: They engage in a battle of wits (and passive aggression) by quoting poetry, which represents their point of view, to each other. To illustrate his point that he is a realist with a creative spirit, the colleague quotes a poem by Tennyson. Proving his ignorance of poetry (and shrinking from the challenge), Keating makes up a poem on the spot. They both laugh.
Reality # 1: “This is a psychological form of challenging,” says Rita Miller, author of Beta Males and Hares Finish Last. “The colleague is testing Keating to assert his dominance. When Keating can’t measure up, the colleague laughs. He realizes Keating is not a real threat and treats him like a child. Also, just like a child, Keating laughs because he doesn’t realize that he lost.”
Reality # 2: “I would award Mr. Keating’s poem a ‘0’ on the Pritchard scale,” asserts Dr. Pritchard.
Scenario # 4
What Happens: The students, under the direction of Keating’s voices, resurrect the Dead Poets Society.
Hollywood Version: The group meets in an abandoned cave. The boys tell ghost stories, spout free verse, drum on garbage cans, and lament their virginity all in preparation for the pièce de résistance: they form a congo line while reading aloud Vachel Lindsay’s The Congo. Audiences are delighted; I sit with a shotgun pointed at the television and hope their next re-enactment is inspired by Suicide is Painless, the theme song from M*A*S*H*.
Reality: According to Sandy Cho, sociologist and author of People Who Need People: Neediness and Self-Destruction, “These boys are clearly exhibiting traits associated with Auschwitz Syndrome. If this cave-dancing brings them happiness, it speaks volumes about the degree of sadness and isolation they endure. If there exists a better argument for disbanding same-sex institutions, I have not heard it.”
Scenario # 5
What Happens: Mr. Keating employs unique teaching methods during his classes/cult meetings.
Hollywood Version: Careful to ensure the students love only him (and not the poetry), Keating dramatically reads all of the poems himself in funny voices like John Wayne and Marlon Brando. Later, he tells the students to acquire a unique perspective by… standing on a desk. Then, Dear Reader, he has them recite lines of poetry (out of context) while kicking soccer balls.
Reality: According to William Shakespeare, “I always knew that my work would be re-interpreted with each performance to reflect the mores of that society. I never intended, however, to have my work sandwiched in between calisthenics.”
Scenario # 6
What Happens: Mr. Hopkins, a student impervious to Mr. Keating’s ploys, refuses to sacrifice his own point of view (and future) for the sake of his teacher’s narcissism.
Hollywood Version: When challenged by the boy, Mr. Keating resorts to childish ridicule and name-calling. When the boy bravely asserts his dominance by reading a purposefully bad poem (“the cat sat on the mat”), it sails over Keating’s head. Instead, he praises the poem and its simple theme.
Reality: According to Kyle Plume, deputy editor of the Journal of Psychiatry, “This boy is the hero of the film. Unlike the other malleable boys, he is not fooled by funny voices and ball-kicking. The fact that Keating praises the poem is either an indication of his submissiveness or his failure to recognize that a challenge has been extended. I would recommend deep analysis and medication for Mr. Keating and a Fulbright Scholarship for Mr. Hopkins – the boy is extraordinary.”
Scenario # 7
What Happens: In the spirit of teenage rebellion sparked by Mr. Keating, Neil defies convention (and his father)… by auditioning for a play.
Hollywood Version: Even though Neil parents have sacrificed their lives to provide him with a stable upbringing and potentially lucrative future as a doctor, he disappoints them (and us all) by throwing it all away to star in a lame play. Brimming with confidence from crushing his parents’ dreams, he throws his roommate’s brand new desk set off of a building simply because the roommate had two of them.
Reality # 1: “People are not fully aware of their decisions until they reach the age of 18,” says Judge Larry Miles. “That is the foundation upon which all law is based and the reason why our parents are charged with guiding our futures. The father is correct in his assessment: the boy is not focused on his future and is quite selfish. I would recommend military school.”
Reality # 2: “We manufacture only the highest quality desk sets,” says Marleen Shapiro, senior vice president of Marketing for Middleton Luxury Desk Sets. “I cannot tell you how many people would kill to own simply one. This boy’s throwing away of our desk set is deeply disturbing and speaks to his entitlement and immaturity. ”
Scenario # 8
What Happens: One of Keating’s students attempts to break up a perfectly happy (and popular) couple after seeing the girl only once.
Hollywood Version: Deranged, the boy declares his love for her publicly by employing Keating’s playbook filled with poetry and flowers. When that fails, he molests her at a party. Afterwards, he convinces her to cheat on her boyfriend with him. Audiences cheer! Finally, a spoiled rich kid is going to get something he wants!
Reality: According to Spokane assistant district attorney Wyatt Malcolm, “Lord Byron did instruct us to seize the day; however, he did not instruct us to seize other women’s breasts. The boy would not serve jail time but he would be required to register as a sex offender, poet or not.”
Scenario # 9
What Happens: Under the tutelage of Mr. Keating, Neil continues to defy his father and star in that lame play.
Hollywood Version: After seeing the play (and his son’s tepid performance), Neil’s father (finally) decides to send the boy to military school where he will be free of Mr. Keating’s mind games. Unable to break free from his captor (Mr. Keating), Neil instead opts for suicide. The music swells as the audience, now cult followers themselves, simmers in hatred toward the father.
Reality: “This is sad but typical,” says Dr. Stephen Weisfeign of Massachusetts General Hospital. “When a young person is under the influence of a cult leader, especially one with funny voices, it is very hard to break free from his teachings. Neil sacrificed himself so that the others might survive without Mr. Keating’s punishing lessons. He and his father are very brave.”
Scenario # 10
What Happens: The administration finally (and correctly) fires Mr. Keating for his poor teaching performance – he skipped the entire section on the Realists – and for Neil’s suicide.
Hollywood Version: In the end, the boys all bravely betray their newfound values and each other by agreeing to throw Keating under the bus; however, during a final, terrifying display of devotion, the students pledge allegiance to their puppet master (atop desks!) and yell “O Captain my Captain!” while audiences cry and I mail angry letters to God.
Reality: “These boys will have to undergo years of therapy if they hope to obtain even a modicum of happiness,” says psychologist Dr. Marsha Fielstone. “The fact that Mr. Keating is free to leave and inflict the same emotional torture on other young boys is deeply disturbing. This lack of closure will be difficult for the boys and us all to overcome.”
Final Thought: Despite our best efforts (and upbeat facebook posts), most of us remain trapped in our own sadness. Sometimes, we fail to achieve our dreams. Other times, we do achieve them and are left unchanged. Poetry (and funny voices) can’t really alter that. The reality is that children need discipline and a structured education free of squat-thrusts or soccer balls, sexual assault will land you in prison, and although experts can’t determine, with any degree of accuracy, the exact moment when poetry (or puns) became a legitimate art form, they can agree that it sucks. Just don’t tell my Uncle John.