Mistakes and misses

poem is above the drinking fountain


I made a big mistake with this poem-elfing.  As a rule, I don’t read other interpretations of poems I post, or if I do, I wait until I’ve done my own ruminating.  But the internet is a big booby trap (as anyone who’s innocently searched on “lubricants” knows); and as I surfed for background information on poet Tom Wayman, I chanced upon an interview he gave.  An interview exclusively about this poem—its form, tone, impact, the poet’s intent—-in short, everything I usually try to figure out on my own.


It’s like I’ve been toiling over a rubiks cube, turning it this way and that, enjoying the clicks and random patterns, when suddenly Erno Rubik himself grabs the puzzle and with a hairy Hungarian hand locks it into place. My investigative spirit is dampened, drowning actually.  Why delve deeper when Wayman has proclaimed in the interview,  “There are no hidden meanings in my poems”?


It’s a good interview–you can read it here–especially interesting because poets don’t often pick apart a published poem.


According to Wayman, this is the most reproduced poem of his career, and bootleg versions abound (psst, bootleg poems, special low price), which explains why I found a few versions online with the following introduction:

Question frequently asked by

students after missing a class


“Did I miss anything?” is a question Wayman considers “aggressive” and belittling to teachers, given all the preparation they do for each class.  In the poem the question seems to have pushed this particular teacher over the edge.  The teacher’s answer is a riff, an improvisation that gets wilder and wilder, delivered in two voices, both of them mocking and sarcastic. Wayman calls the teacher’s tone one of “anger and hate,” which sounds a little strong to me, but I suppose the flight of fancy that ends with grand cosmological revelations could stem from the bitterness of being undervalued.


I left the poem in a college dorm where a Monopoly board had been painted on the walls. My intention was to leave the dorm residents something funny, something to lighten the pressure in this final month of school.  Unfortunately it seems to me now to have the opposite effect, to come off more like a nagging message a hovering parent (who would never be me) might leave on a dry erase board:  GO TO CLASS!


Here’s what I’m thinking about this failed posting.  Wayman and all the teachers who have put “Did I Miss Anything?”  in their syllabi and have taped it to their office doors as a kind of BEWARE OF PISSED-OFF TEACHER sign may find the question aggressive and irritating, but I find it simply a human one.  Did I miss anything is universal worry. From our earliest years we don’t want to miss out, we hate to think others are having interesting experiences while we are absent. Isn’t this why children hate to go to bed?  Whether we miss a party because of illness, or a meeting because of another meeting, or a parade because we hate parades—we think, even if we are too timid to ask, did I miss anything? And we battle with the two voices Wayman lays out.  The self-absorbed side of us can’t imagine other people having fun or accomplishing tasks without us present; the neurotic side worries that we are missing something really important.


Some of my earliest memories are of missing out on things—for some reason I was desperately unhappy to be left behind a family outing to see Tora!Tora !Tora! —so maybe that’s why I’m overly sensitive to the heaps of insecurity behind this question. These days when people ask me about an event they had to miss, I try to remember to say first, We really missed you being there.  Because that is the answer to the question they are really asking.


So are we missing nothing or everything? Our technology makes it easy to miss nothing—TiVo, Hulu, Ichat, Skype, and Foursquare all extend our presence beyond a single time and place—but technology can also make us feel we are missing everything.  We can get obsessed with following other people’s lives on Twitter and Facebook, reminded with each update of events we have missed.


Everything or nothing?  Both answers can be good for the soul. Missing out on something wonderful or important reminds us of our place in the universe.  Replaceable.  Not essential.  Life does go on without us.  On the other hand, it’s liberating to realize that we can survive missing a not-to-be-missed event.  Lots of happenings just aren’t as important as they’re made out to be.


I’ve just written two closing paragraphs about a book I read as a young girl where the character misses a trip to India but gets to make fudge with her cool babysitter, but I’ve deleted them.  You aren’t missing much.


  1. Kelly

    That is so interesting – when I read the poem it does not seem obvious that the teacher is angry. Could just be a good sense of humor with a little sarcasm. That is what is so great about poetry – we can each have our own interpretation of a poem that makes it meaningful to us – so does the author’s intention really matter?

    Would love to hear more about parents who leave children behind while they go to India. Fudge making seems to be little consolation and a cool babysitter sounds like one you would trust for the night but not while you go to India. You must tell us more…………..

  2. jw rogers

    On the reading, it can be read as an interior monologue years after the missed class happened — a student grown into an adult pondering the contradiction of how nothing is everything in a moment.

    I don’t know that you failed on this one. You definitely broke your form — the commentary was integrated into the purpose of the environment and the poem is literal. Rather than creating that moment of stopping, and taking the experience of the moment into an altered state, you’ve reinforced the essential tension of the space, become part of the institution yourself.

    That’s a different outcome. Subtle and not as easily satisfying.

    But it’s more of the remarkable art you’re doing.

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