I’ve long been a fan of Tom Wayman’s poem “Did I Miss Anything,” and I may have showed it to students once or twice, but I’ve never incorporated it into a syllabus, mostly because the classroom is stressful enough without teachers unleashing their frustrations back at the students. Rather than use this poem, I include a “What should I do if I miss class?” section on the syllabus, and I simply refer students to it if the need arises. This is a poem for teachers to share with each other, not a poem to rub into the face of a student.
What does the poem really mean? That is, what hidden meanings are present in the poem?
There are no hidden meanings in my poems. They are meant to be straightforward statements. Of course, the poem “Did I Miss Anything?” has a mocking tone, and when people are angry they say things they don’t mean. For example, the sarcastic speaker in my poem is pretending to answer the student’s question honestly but in fact is taking a round-about way to say to the student that there’s something wrong with the way the student has phrased the question.
Language is tricky that way: in certain moods, we often say the opposite of what we mean, or at least mean something different than what we say. “What-ever” used as a put-down doesn’t really mean the speaker is fine with what has been said or done. “What-ever” actually signals that the speaker DOESN’T agree with what has just been said or done, but at best is resigned to the stupidity (as the speaker sees it) of what has just been said or done.
In my poems, the only hidden meaning are the meanings we hide in language all day long. One of my models for poetry is the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971. In one interview, the questioner mentions that Neruda frequently refers in his poetry to doves and guitars, and asks Neruda what these references REALLY mean in his poems. Neruda says: “When I use the word ‘dove’ in my poem I’m referring to a bird called a dove, and when I use the word ‘guitar’ I mean to indicate a musical instrument known as a guitar.” I’ve always loved that answer.
Do you think your poem has a good effect on students?
I stopped showing the poem to my students, because when I did they became more aggressive. The sentence they used after they’d read the poem became a declarative one, rather than an interrogative. After they missed a class or classes, they’d say to me: “I didn’t miss anything, did I.” The last two words were uttered like a dare.