Grounded in the belief that everything a reader needs to know to understand a piece of literature, such as a poem, Formalism dictates that a reader look no further than the poem itself to understand it. A formalist reading requires a careful consideration of both the poem's individual elements as well as the poem as a whole, and this reading starts with the poem's diction, allusions, imagery and symbols. After examining the poem's basic elements, the formalist critic turns to the poem as a whole and considers the structure of the work, the interrelationships of its parts, as well as its tone, point-of-view, theme and ambiguities. The final step of a formalist examination is determining how these different elements come together to convey an overall message and what that message is. A formalist reading of Howard Nemerov's "September: The First Day of School" reveals the author's internal struggle as his son is starting school, which allows him to juxtapose his own past with his son's present. "September: The First Day of School" highlights the inherent human loneliness by juxtaposing the public experience of schooling that the narrator and the vast majority of adults have undergone with that of the narrator's son. The narrator stresses his inability to help his son or guide him through the experience of his schooling and growth, ultimately showing the solitude of any human being despite being a part of the society as a whole.
The poem begins with the narrator taking his son to school for the first time. The first image that the reader encounters is that of the narrator and his son walking to the school holding hands, creating a powerful image of familial unity. This familial unit is immediately perturbed by the image is soon perturbed as the narrator's son eventually lets go of his father's hand and walks into his classroom. The narrator takes pause to acknowledge this necessary separation, "And when I leave him at the first-grade door / He cries a little but is brave; he does / Let go" (2-4). By placing a semicolon in the middle of the third line, the narrator creates a pause in the line, conveying the necessity to create a similar pause in his day to accommodate his son's inevitable crying prior to going into class for the first time. Additionally, the enjambment at the end of the third line signifies the forced separation that must occur between father and son in order for both of them to go on. Just as the line's stop is unnatural and forced, so is the separation between father and son.
After discussing his son's difficulties in separating from his father, the narrator discusses his own experience as a student starting out in the first grade. He notes, "Selfish tears remind me now / I cried before that door a life ago" (4-5.) It is clear that he is crying just like his son is, but these tears are not in sympathy with his son. Rather, they are a bitter reminder of his experience as a student.
The final 2 lines of the first stanza simultaneously unify and separate the narrator from his son. They are at once united by their mutual experience of going through schooling but at the same time realizing the distance between them. There is, indeed a lifetime separating them from one another, but the experience they go through is essentially the same. Even though what his son feels is nearly identical to what he felt at his son's age, the narrator cannot help his son, and the narrator's son has to be alone in his schooling. The narrator furthers this idea of solitude in unity in the following stanza, as he states, "Each fall the children must endure together/What every child also endures alone" (6-7). The education that the children receive will forever unite and separate them.
The author has a momentary display of his own authority of having gone through this by using the words "So arbitrary, so peremptory" -- in a way this is his way of showing off that he has gone through the experience of acquiring an education. He knows what his son and his classmates will be learning, even if they might not know it yet themselves. He knows more about their educational future than the kids know. Yet he has to allow every single one of these students to experience life on their own and stand idly by, waiting for his son to stop crying. At the same time, the words "peremptory" and "arbitrary" become an expressive metaphors for life, both the narrator's as well as his son's and his son's friends and people in general. Life is indeed peremptory, but we are all in need to make our own mistakes to figure it out. The individual experience of going through school, leading one's own way through life and making one's own mistakes is invaluable and cannot be substituted. Mistakes have to be made, tears must be cried, hands must be pried away.
The universality of the human experience that his son is going through is further expanded upon in the third stanza of the poem, with the introduction of Joseph. The Old Testament story of Joseph applies in this case only as a lesson about competition and the necessity to keep a positive outlook even at the face of adversity. The lesson that the narrator wants his son to derive from this anecdote is articulated in the final line of the stanza, "And yet kindness came of it in the end" (15). The didactic aspect of this story blends perfectly with the overall theme of the poem -- the importance of education and the importance of allowing one to find their way through life; the inability of a father to help his son through challenges and being forced to let go of his hand.
The narrator's reflective exercise continues through much of the fourth stanza and only in the fifth stanza does the narrator stop remembering his own schooling -- "Shakespeare's plays" and "Euler's Law" are further examples of this -- and come back into the present, where his son is embarking on his own journey. The rift between father and son has occurred: "My child had disappeared / Behind the classroom door" (23-24) the narrator remarks. The time the narrator spent fantasizing about his own past and envisioning his son's future was enough to tear apart the family unit that the reader encounters in the first lines of the poem, and the reader's next encounter with the narrator's son is akin to a missing person's report. Uttering the words "my child has disappeared" is a nightmare of sorts for any parent, but the narrator's choice of these words is in no way accidental. Rather, the words signify the pain the author is experiencing in his separation from his son. The lines prior to this declaration seem to serve the function of convincing the narrator of the importance of his son's education. Thus, the narrator seems to be listing a series of things that he learned in school in order to convince himself that the pain of the separation from his son must be endured for the greater benefit of his son.
The lines following the narrator's declaration of his son's disappearance convey the pain and sorrow that the author is experiencing, and allow the readers to gain a better understanding of what the narrator is going through. He declares,
And should I live
To see his coming forth, a life away,
I know my hope, but do not know its form
Nor hope to know it. (23-26)
These lines allow the reader to understand just what the narrator is going through, as the sight of his son walking through the classroom door is not…
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