Years ago and far away, my French teacher asked me the meaning of a line in some ancient, obscure poem. The question caught me in flagrant daydreaming mode. But this was French class, right? So the answer had to be love.
At my response, Monsieur looked down upon me from the great height of his French superiority, and speaking loudly and clearly to make sure everyone knew what he thought of American teenagers, he announced, “That may be what you think the poem means, mademoiselle, but that is not what the text says.” Please don’t think ill of me, but my response to his response to my response was one great big guffaw.
On my way to the principal’s office, I reflected on that laugh. I hadn’t been trying to cover up any discomfort — this was Berkeley, after all, and we didn’t do discomfort. Nor had I (consciously) intended to mock Monsieur. No, what had tickled me was the thought of that little poem, enthroned on its perfect white page, saying the same-old same-old from century to century, while the world around it went through hell and high water, feast and famine, war and peace.
How could the poem mean the same thing to a French baker in medieval Paris and a Montreal hockey player in the 1980s? How could the French words of the poem speak to me exactly as they spoke to Monsieur? Isn’t the whole point of life to figure out for ourselves what the dad-blasted poem is trying to tell each of us? Any Jew knows that’s why we’re down here.
Anyway, after my talk with the principal, I was transferred out of Monsieur’s French class and into Madame’s. It was a smart move. Madame believed that students should recite poems, not read them. That way, she told us, we could put our own, personal meaning into French words. Because, she told us, a poem means different things to different people. And yes, she agreed, French poetry is always all about love.