Monday, March 29, 2021

The Hated English Teacher and Tennyson’s “Break, Break, Break”

We all hated our tenth grade English teacher, Mr. Glicksman. In the late 1960s, a time of rebellion and questioning authority, Mr. Glicksman was an old-school disciplinarian. He had taught high school English since shortly before the rocks were placed at Stonehenge. Any violation of his long list of rules incurred points off your grade or a visit to the dean of students.

Bronx High School of Science, where I studied with Mr. Glicksman
Mr. Glicksman had turned the literary arts into a precise science. He gave quizzes on 3 X 5 cards, a piece of white, lined card stock about as wide as your hand and as tall as your thumb. All information was reduced to a series of ten multiple-choice questions that could be answered on one of these cards when it came time for a quiz.

When we studied Homer’s Odyssey, the test questions did not probe the thought-provoking issues raised by an ingenious traveler battling for decades against a hostile god, mythical creatures, and the elements, while yearning to get back to his wife, son, and homeland. Instead, Mr. Glicksman’s quizzes focused on cold facts. One typical question that sticks in my mind (possibly because I got it wrong!) was: “Did Odysseus bend the bow on the third, fourth, fifth, or sixth try?” The answer is the third try, in case you were dying to know.


And yet, Mr. Glicksman loved poetry. His favorite was Alfred Tennyson’s “Break, Break, Break”:


Break, break, break,

      On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!

And I would that my tongue could utter

      The thoughts that arise in me.


O, well for the fisherman’s boy,

      That he shouts with his sister at play!

O, well for the sailor lad,

      That he sings in his boat on the bay!


And the stately ships go on

      To their haven under the hill;

But O for the touch of a vanish’d hand,

      And the sound of a voice that is still!


Break, break, break

      At the foot of thy crags, O Sea!

But the tender grace of a day that is dead

      Will never come back to me.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892)
When Mr. Glicksman read that poem aloud to our class, he revealed a rare personal emotion, telling us that those lines recalled for him the death of his own brother. He took off his glasses for a second and wiped away an uncharacteristic tear. We were shocked, but also, having suffered under Mr. Glicksman’s harsh penalties for any minor infraction, the students were ready for revenge. After class, the sophomores mocked him for his soft-hearted response: “Can you believe the way Glicksman almost cried at that corny old poem!”

Not long ago, I was walking by the Pacific Ocean at Sea Ranch in California.

Sea Ranch, California (photo by Esta Brand)
The sky was spread with clouds; waves were fracturing against the rocky coastline. I couldn’t help thinking of the lines Mr. Glicksman had read us:

Break, break, break,

      On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!


I soon reread Tennyson’s poem, and it moved me, for the first time. It was partly that deeply felt sense of loss that the tides of the ocean pulled out of me that day, and partly the sheer music of the poem’s words.

At first glance, Tennyson’s sixteen lines seem to have a somewhat mechanical plan, with predictable rhymes such as sea and me, and play and bay. But the closer I looked at the poem, the more unconventional it seemed. The first line in stanza 1 has only three syllables, and the same word appears three times in a row. That’s a sharp contrast to stanza 2, where the initial line has eight syllables and no word repeats. The powerful stresses in every line constantly shift the rhythm, from anapestic to iambic to spondaic, evoking the strong but unpredictable swirling of the sea. Tennyson uses mostly monosyllabic words to create pounding beats, and masterfully inserts polysyllabic touches to change up the cadences.


Maybe more surprising than the poem’s structure is the fact that the speaker is addressing not a lost loved one, but the sea. The poet says he is unable to “utter/The thoughts that arise in me.” His sense of loss is so jagged that he can barely express it. He can’t even name what or who he’s mourning for.


Nothing expressed for me so vividly the feelings the ocean evoked for me that day at Sea Ranch as the poem our teacher had recited to our class, a poem that had lodged in my synapses for 54 years. And I suddenly felt gratitude for that crotchety old Mr. Glicksman, and a sense of loss for “the sound of a voice that is still.”

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies.

Zack’s most recent book of translations, Bérenice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris.

Other posts of interest:

How to Get Published

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop

How Not to Become a Literary Dropout

Putting Together a Book Manuscript

Working with a Writing Mentor

How to Deliver Your Message

Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?

Why Write Poetry?

Poetic Forms: Introduction, the Sonnet, the Sestina, the Ghazal, the Tanka, the Villanelle

Praise and Lament

How to Be an American Writer

Writers and Collaboration

Types of Closure in Poetry

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