Mary Ruefle has become an important voice in contemporary American poetry, praised often for her fresh, inventive style. She has published several collections of her works, including Tristimania (2004), Among the Musk-Ox People (2002), The Adamant (1989, winner of the 1988 Iowa Poetry Prize), and Post Meridian (2000), which became one of her most successful. The poems in this collection reflect her whimsical treatment of language, her startling and often obscure images, and her exploration of the interaction between imagination and human experience.
In one of the best poems in that collection, “Sentimental Education,” Ruefle focuses on a classroom of children who must face a series of injustices as they interact with each other and with their teacher. The title of the poem, an allusion to Gustave Flaubert’s novel of the same name, is an ironic statement about the nature of education. In her construction of lists of each child’s loves and of the prayers that they recite in the classroom, Ruefle reveals how the students are confronted with the harsh realities of human experience and of traditional, parochial education, and how they learn to face these realities through active, imaginative engagement with their world.
Ruefle’s “Sentimental Education” creates a classroom scene in which the students are reciting prayers, revised in terms of their own awareness of one another and the relationships that exist between certain students. In the first stanza, the speaker notes that Ann, a girl in class, loves a boy named Barry. In the second stanza, the class is asked to pray for someone named Lucius Fenn, who “suffers” while shaking hands, suggesting that he is painfully shy. It is not clear whether Lucius is a student in the class.
The third and forth stanza continue this pattern. In the third, the speaker claims that a girl named Bonny Polton loves a pug, which is a type of dog. In the fourth, the children are asked to pray for Olina Korsk, who is missing several fingers.
In the fifth stanza, the speaker notes that Leon Bendrix loves Odelia Jonson, but it seems as if his love is not returned since Odelia loves Kurt. Similarly not reciprocating in feeling, Kurt “loves Carlos who loves Paul.” The love one boy feels for another could be an expression of friendship or a suggestion of homosexual feelings. In the sixth stanza, the students are asked to pray for Cortland Filby, probably a boy in class since his action of handling a dead wasp is described in the present tense. The wasp is “a conceit for his mother.” Conceit is a literary device which draws a striking comparison between two extremely different things, in this case between the dead wasp and Cortland’s mother. Since Cortland is not identified as having a specific problem, as Lucius and Olina have been, this prayer gives a vague sense that he may be troubled by something or that a boy with a waspish mother needs the prayers of his peers.
In the seventh stanza, the speaker notes Harold’s pleasure in examining Londa’s hair under the microscope. Similarly intrigued, Londa enjoys braiding her pony’s mane. Fancy Dancer, the focus of the prayer in stanza eight, is likely the name of Londa’s pony who “is troubled by the vibrissa [the stiff hairs growing] in his nostrils.”
Stanza nine returns to the love Nadine St. Clair feels for Ogden Smythe who loves “blowing his nose on postage stamps.” The directive for the prayer for William Shakespeare in the next stanza may come from a student who wants the children to think of him often or it may come out of the children’s sense that the teacher wants them to appreciate Shakespeare’s poetry.
In stanza eleven, Yukiko Pearl is said to love “the bits of toffee / that fall to the floor” as Jeffrey eats his snack.
The call for the prayer in the next stanza seems to come from one of the children who knows Marieko, a florist who...
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