The Trouble With Principles

what should a poet do, living up to one's ethics, sticking to principles,

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I’m struggling with a decision that should be easily made. It isn’t a heady question of global importance. Nope. It’s much more mundane.

It’s a question of principle.


I’ve spent some time (and even more time ) writing about how the Teach & Test approach to education screws up our species’ wonderful inborn drive to seek out learning and retain that learning.

I’ve also spent a bit of time writing poetry. I authored a collaborative chapbook (long since out of print) back when I wrote poetry in partnership with nursing home residents. My poems are published here and there for the six people who read tiny literary journals and the three people who buy small press poetry anthologies. And a collection of my poetry, Tending,  has been published.

The engine fueling a non-fiction writer’s work is entirely different than the inspiration that sparks a poet’s poems into being. The non-fiction writer wants to get ideas across. The poet wants her words felt.

These two motivations probably shouldn’t tussle.

Today they are. That’s because this poet was asked something that made this non-fiction writer snort. A poem of mine, published last year in the Christian Science Monitor, has been selected for use in tens of thousands of high school assessment tests.

Yes, those same tests I rail against.

I don’t for a moment assume that my poem was selected on its merits. The piece happens to be riddled with imagery and metaphor, well suited to torture teenagers with questions designed to make them further detest poetry.

But I didn’t turn down the request right away. I’m not sure why (except that I’m a weak weak person to whom they’re offering $350 for the rights). The very concept violates my principles.

I also have the desire to let that poem stay alive. Poems live only while they’re read or when their lines are remembered. Most poems have a lifespan comparable to that of a mayfly. And yes, I have a ridiculous hope that one teen in the midst of a test might feel the poem.

I’ll probably send the official multipage form back with permission denied written where my signature should be. But I haven’t done it yet.

What would you do?

(And if you’re curious, here’s the poem.)


                        Why the Window Washer Reads Poetry   

for Michael, who carried poems in his work shirt pocket


He lowers himself

on a seat they call a cradle, rocking

in harnesses strung long-armed

from the roof.


Swiping windows clean

he spends his day

outside looking in.


Mirrors refract light into his eyes

telescopes point down

photographs face away,

layers of dust

unifying everything.


Tethered and counterbalanced

these sky janitors hang,

names stitched on blue shirts

for birds to read.

Squeegees in hand they

arc lightly back and forth across

the building’s eyes

descend a floor, dance again.


While the crew catches up

he pauses, takes a slim volume from his pocket

and balancing there,

36 stories above the street,

reads a poem or two

in which the reader is invariably placed


looking out.


Laura Grace Weldon

29 thoughts on “The Trouble With Principles

  1. COOL POEM!!! Love it! It deserves to be read. But I understand and appreciate your horror of conveyer belt learning so it is a tough call. I think my desire to be read would outweigh my principles, in a “I’m not cheap but I can be had” kind of way, but then again, principles don’t mean much if we don’t live by them.


    • “Conveyor belt learning” is a great term. The way you balance “I’m not cheap but can be had” with the importance of living by our principles is exactly where I’m hanging.


  2. Wonderful poetry!

    Think of yourself in that seat, with the test booklet on the table in front of you? How would you read it? If I see myself in that seat, and feel the feelings that I can still remember, my response to the testing company would be clear.


  3. You are on the outside of the testing company, looking in. The students are on the outside of the test, looking in. Could the students get to the inside of the poem? Did the testing company get to the inside of the poem? No conclusions here, just my observations.


    • Love the Socratic approach. Which leads to more questions. Can a test get inside of the students? Can a writer reach the inside of readers? Can years of testing provoke those who are tested to find a better way?


  4. I loathe standardized testing with evey cell of my body, but I say go for it! It won’t turn away anyone who already detests poetry and analysis, but as you said, you never know who might “feel” the poem and become inspired.


  5. That poem is waiting to be shared. If the ‘color-the-tulip-red’ test environment isn’t the forum to share, something better will turn up. But then again, if you share in the test-taking world, I believe that chances are high you will be inspiring at least one person to remember that he/she does not have to color inside the lines.


  6. I understand your loathing of standardized tests but I am not sure it betrays your principles to have your poetry used here…I think the important thing is that your values, your love of language, comes through in your poetry.

    I think you should share your poem. Just my two cents 🙂


  7. I wonder what multiple choice questions they’ll ask about it. I wonder if you’d get those questions ‘right’ yourself. You don’t get any say on that part, do you?

    I’d like to live in a world in which great poets said “Hell, no! You may not use my poetry that way.”

    I wouldn’t hold it against you if you did it, and yeah, someone might get to smile while taking that test.


  8. Irony is surely a ruling principle in this world!
    It is a poem that has been given wings to fly, you should let it go…
    A lovely evocative poem to be shared in spite of the context.
    Can envision students being transported elsewhere by it’s imagery.
    Embrace the irony!


  9. Laura, it’s a lovely poem, but I would deny them permission. As a teacher, I hear my kids complain bitterly about the “Stupid crap” on the exams – and I have to wonder and partially believe that it becomes “stupid crap” based mostly on its inclusion on an exam. If it were my poem, I would rather have it forgotten than producing that much irritation in the universe.


  10. Tough call to make! I love the poem and think it should be read by as many people as possible. On the other hand, if I take Debra’s advice and imagine myself as the test-taker, I think my student-self wouldn’t think it was a “real” poem, I would think it was written by some test-maker just to torture me. That is, someone wrote those exact words and lines specifically so that they could ask the questions they wanted to test me on.


  11. I would allow it to be used in the high school assessment test. Once you created the poem it became an entity – alive – and you shouldn’t squelch its right to life. Let your poem live – in whatever way it can.


  12. I was one of those geeky kids who looked forward to that part of the test. It was like I survived the rest of it and the poems and stories gave me a welcome relief. I actually enjoyed reading them. If 10% (or even 1%) of the students are like I am, their pleasure would outweigh the possible guilt associated with allowing it to be used on one of those torturous tests.


    • Heartening to think that some kids find relief of any form in tests. I suppressed my competitive side in real life but in testing situations, I wanted to answer perfectly AND be the first to finish. Pretty much distracted me from absorbing the content.


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