It was a strange contraption that Himself brought into the pub last night. He parked it on a bench but wouldn’t talk about it until the Teacher came. It was only on a Wednesday night that he graced us with his presence. Celebrating the crossing of the ‘hump’, as he called the mid-week day. Even then he would arrive late and drink only two or three pints. A scabby way of celebrating anything. With his moaning about his workload you’d think he would need at least a dozen pints. Still he seemed to be short of money too, with his five children, two of them in college. Ah well.
As soon as he arrived, Himself said, “I have just the job for you.”
“I have a job,” replied the Teacher, “and it’s killing me.”
“Just the job to make your job lighter.”
“I could do with that. What is it?”
“Last week you were complaining about how hard it was to teach poetry.”
Sure enough last week he and the Writer were hard at it about poetry. The Writer claimed that schools should be barred from teaching poetry because after fourteen years all the students wanted was never to see a poem again. The Teacher defended the system and claimed that the students learned plenty of useful literary and verbal skills by analysing poems. But the Writer would have none of it. They could learn the same skills by analysing a football match. They could fake ecstasy at the rhythm of the Arsenal football team when they were in attacking mode. They could verbalise about the lyricism of Aidan McGeady’s left foot.
At this the Cynic had snorted. Try that and you would have a visit from a few football heavies in crew cuts. Leave football alone or we’ll break your legs. We don’t want you doing for football what you did for poetry.
“The problem, if I can summarise,” said Himself, “is that students have to prove their enjoyment of poetry by verbalising their reaction, and this destroys any pleasure they may have got. Am I right?”
The Writer and the Teacher nodded in synchronised agreement.
“Now supposing you could gauge their pleasure without forcing them to verbalise, without asking them to prove they enjoyed the poem.”
“That would solve the problem,” said the Teacher.
“It would,” agreed the Writer.
“So, I have invented the machine to do just that.” Himself waved his arm grandly in the direction of the contraption he had parked on the bench. He took a long slug from his pint and then put the glass up on the ledge behind him. “Clear the table.”
There were a lot of leads and wires, and there was a monitor that looked like your common or garden computer tablet. Himself sorted out the leads and then plugged in the gadget. “Now,” said he, “we are going to have the trial-run of the Pleasureometer.”
“What is it? The latest in sex toys?” asked the Cynic.
“It is a revolutionary new method of assessing the pleasure that a student gets from a poem. It is foolproof and will eliminate the faking and learned responses that earn students high grades at the moment, even when they hate the stuff.”
“Too good to be true,” said the Teacher. “How is it supposed to work?”
“Like a lie detector,” said Himself, proud as Judy, taking up two leads. “You wire someone up, read a poem to them, and you watch their heartbeat. If they get excited, it will show up on the monitor. Simple but ingenious. Now who wants to go first?”
The Teacher was really curious, but reluctant. “It’s not dangerous, is it? There’s two twenty volts coming out of the wall there?”
“And going through a transformer. The gadget operates on six volts.”
He attached about six terminals to the teacher, then told him to relax, and fiddled with the gadget. When he was satisfied, he took out a battered copy of The Golden Treasury from his pocket and began reading. He read a bit from The Lady of Shallot, but there was no response from the Teacher. Then a bit from Tintern Abbey. The Teacher’s needle didn’t budge. Then he tried one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Not a gig.
Himself seemed disappointed. So he took the wires off the Teacher and attached them to the Writer, no doubt expecting a better response to the poetry of the immortals. He read Keats’s Nightingale, but the Writer’s pulse didn’t soar. He thought it might be an ethnic problem, so he fingered through the book until he found Yeats. But Sailing to Byzantium similarly left the needle floundering in the doldrums.
The Young Lad asked to have a go, and was wired up. They read what seemed to me like a religious poem by John Donne. But to my surprise there was a great ooh after a few lines. I was elbowed out of the way in the excitement. They tried a modern poem, Eliot’s Prufrock, and again with the same result. Every few lines the needle would soar, and there would be an ooh from the observation team.
Himself was really excited. He got out a notebook and handed it to the teacher, telling him to make a note of which images sent the Young Lad’s needle soaring. They were working their way through the Golden Treasury trying to establish a pattern, what it was that excited the Young Lad’s imagination. I had been elbowed out, as I said, and began to lose interest. My gaze wandered around the pub.
Over among the theatre crowd there was a young one sporting a lovely pair of legs. She was sitting on a high stool and her mini-skirt kept receding up her thighs. Every now and then she would swivel around, or cross her legs, or uncross her legs, and each time there would be a teasing flash of her knickers. It kept my interest while the rest of them were so absorbed in their pedagogical experiment. Then I noticed the strange synchronicity of the flash of the young one’s knickers and the ooh from the scientific community. I made a closer observation and noticed that the Young Lad was eyeing the girl on the high stool, and every time there was a flash of her knickers, his needle must have soared because there was a resultant ooh from the observation team.
I thought about telling them of my own scientific observation. However I was enjoying the show too much, with the flash and the ooh coming ever closer, as if they were about to eliminate the middle man.