I’ve occasionally written about the fact that teaching English often reminds me, oddly enough, of walking in a labyrinth. I purposely didn’t use the word “maze”, because long ago a friend explained to me that a labyrinth and a maze are very different things. A maze, he said, has paths that lead nowhere and can cause utter bewilderment, whereas a labyrinth always leads, eventually, to the center and then back out. In a labyrinth, you actually can’t get lost; with patience and perseverance, you always reach the goal, one way or another. I often think of this analogy when the students are studying a literary work – a poem, for instance. Sometimes they become disheartened by the idea that the poem is simply too puzzling, too obscure, but I try to encourage them to just keep “walking” through the poem the way they would walk in a labyrinth, trusting that all paths lead to the center. In a labyrinth, they wouldn’t walk in an anxious and dispirited way, because they know they will eventually reach the heart of it, somehow or other, and, likewise, a composed and steadfast reader will sooner or later reach the heart of any poem. In a labyrinth, the secret is to simply keep walking and watching, and the secret of understanding a literary work is to simply keep reading and thinking. With a poem, the students may have to read some lines over and over, walking this way and that with the words, turning left and right as the sense of the lines leads them on. Similar to a labyrinth, the students may very nearly reach the heart of the poem, and then slowly find themselves back at the start, back on the outside of the lines, looking in at the web of words and wondering what it’s all about. However, even then, I remind them to simply start walking good-naturedly through the poem once again, taking pleasure in the power of the words and waiting unwearyingly for the lines to lead them to the heart of it all. For an enduring reader, it always, in due course, happens.
© 2010 Hamilton Salsich