“Learning Experience” focuses on a boy who is about to take an examination to determine whether he will be subject to being drafted into the United States Army. The twenty-two-line poem is written in free verse that conforms to no predetermined rules and follows no particular meter. It is one long, unified stanza. The title of the poem is ironic. The boy, who is sitting in a classroom in Gary, Indiana, is supposed to be “learning” how “to think a little on demand,” but he is bored, and the teacher’s lessons on “dangling participles” are not going to teach him much about life. In the world outside he will undergo a learning experience, certainly, but one that has little to do with “French irregular verbs” and “Jacksonian democracy,” with the material listed on an English or history syllabus. The speaker of the poem is a teacher who has come “out on the train from Chicago” to Gary to teach English grammar.
History forms a backdrop to Marge Piercy’s poem and to the plight of the boy in the Gary classroom. In 1965 President Lyndon Johnson authorized General William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. troops in Vietnam, to commit soldiers to the battlefield. Therefore, at the time of this poem, American soldiers are fighting in Vietnam, and more young men are being drafted into the Army every day. The second crucial historical aspect is that in March, 1951, President Harry Truman had issued an executive order deferring the draft for college students of adequate scholastic standing. There would be no second chance for those who failed the college aptitude test that would permit a student deferment.
In line 11, halfway through the poem, it is revealed that “The time of tomorrow’s draft exam is written on the board.” This fact points to, and explains, the final line of the poem, which says that tomorrow the boy “will try and fail his license to live.” Because the boy has been too bored to learn enough in school, he will fail the exam and ultimately will be drafted into “Today’s Action Army,” qualifying for an education in “death that hurts.”
Forms and Devices
One of Piercy’s primary interests in delineating history is to make the lessons of the past part of a learning experience that prevents the repetition of past horrors. History can be a kind of moral instruction. The significance of place—where the boy is, physically, socially, and politically—is crucial to the poem. A series of nine prepositional phrases using the word “in” points to where he is: “in the classroom/ in Gary, in the United States, in NATO, in SEATO/ in the thing-gorged belly of the sociobeast,/ in fluorescent light in slowly moving time/ in [thick] boredom.”
In the poem’s twenty-two lines, twenty-two prepositional phrases attest the weight of the preposition “in” in the poem. To be “in” something is to be contained, and perhaps, as here, trapped. He is trapped by the situation of his life, which has left him few options. Were the war not raging, he might go to work in the steel mills that “consumed his father.” As it is, if he had been more interested or studied harder in school, he might be able to attend college and avoid the draft; he will not have this chance. Yet academic pursuits are shown as unappealing as well; a simile describes classroom boredom as “thick and greasy as vegetable shortening.”
Marge Piercy refers to Gary, Indiana, in her first novel, Going Down Fast (1969). Here, early in her career, she taught English composition and questioned the merit of a learning experience such as that experienced by the boy. Piercy notes that Gary, named for a judge who acquired a reputation for hangings, was a steel-mill town “you never forget you came from” (Going Down Fast).
NATO and SEATO are both treaty alliances to which the United States belonged (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, respectively). Both were established largely to stop the international spread of communism. Being “in” these organizations widens the trap containing the boy far beyond Gary and even the United States. Moreover, the boy is “in the thing-gorged belly of the sociobeast”—the sociobeast emblematic of a capitalist, consumer-oriented society that has turned into a monster and begun consuming its own material and members. It may remind one of the “military-industrial complex,” a term often used in the 1960’s to refer to the complicity between industry and the “war machine” dedicated to fighting the Vietnam War.
Would it be better, the poem asks, to be alive in a world of scholastic obfuscation or to be drafted into the Army and sent to Vietnam, the Dominican Republic, or Guatemala? The juxtaposition of an education represented by a curriculum of lifeless facts with that of the instruction provided by the Army defines the complexity of the “learning experience” portrayed in the poem.