William Liao

March 1, 2022

your barbaric yawp

In the 1989 film Dead Poet’s Society, there’s a scene where an English teacher, John Keating (played by Robin Williams), asks his student, Todd Anderson (played by Ethan Hawke), to read aloud a poem that he was supposed to have prepared before class. 

Todd, a somewhat nervous and self-conscious student, informs Mr. Keating while avoiding eye contact: “I didn’t do it. I didn’t write a poem.” 

Unphased by the situation, Mr. Keating responds: “Mr. Anderson thinks that everything inside him is worthless and embarrassing. Isn’t that right, Todd? Well, I think you’re wrong. I think you have something inside of you that is worth a great deal.” 

Mr. Keating walks towards the chalkboard and writes down a quote from Walt Whitman: “I sound my barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the world.” 

“For those of you that don’t know,” Mr. Keating explains to the class, “a ‘yawp’ is a loud cry or yell.”

Much to Todd’s dismay, Mr. Keating asks him to stand up in front of the class and give a demonstration of his best barbaric yawp. 

Despite his classmates laughter, Todd gives it a go. The first few tries were predictably timid and quiet, but with Mr. Keating’s encouragement, he eventually screams at the top of his lungs, “YAWP!”. 

The tempo of the scene begins to pick up dramatically:

With some further guidance from Mr. Keating, Todd begins to develop an entire poem in real-time. Many in the class continue to laugh and mock, but Todd and Mr. Keating remain in a lockstep with each other — with Mr. Keating continuing his encouragement and Todd completing his poem. 

The scene ends with Mr. Keating appearing moved by what he knew Todd was capable of creating all along, and with Todd visibly in awe after what appears to be him coming into to contact with his barbaric yawp for the first time. The class room, for the first time, was completely silent. 

It’s hard to describe precisely what is meant by a ‘barbaric yawp.’ 

If you’ve ever felt like you had a pent-up energy or message inside you that needed shouting, it’s something like that.

If you’ve ever felt an urge to move, to be different, to reinvent because you know you’re not where you need to be, it’s something like that. 

If you’ve ever thought to yourself, ‘there has to be more to life than this’, it’s something like that. 

Many of us have barbaric yawps to shout to the world, but, like Todd, we sometimes restrain ourselves for fear of judgment — an understandable fear. 

I guess the imperative question is of the two scenarios, one where you seek acceptance by constantly molding your existence in the shape of others’ expectations and another where you seek to discover and embrace who you are while being rejected by some, which would be the greatest tragedy?