How poetry can survive the classroom
By Daniel J. McLaughlin
"We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for."
Those are the words of John Keating, the inspirational teacher played by the late Robin Williams in 'Dead Poets Society'. A poem does not invoke indifference in a person: the perfect rhyme can provoke laughter, sheer joy, or indeed, sorrow; and a bad sonnet can make you shift uncomfortably in your seat, cringing and wishing you were elsewhere.
First impressions count, and sadly our first impression of prosody (the art of versification) comes in the classroom. Schools are often the places where potential poets go to die. Even I, who pens pretentious poetry in my spare time, am filled with fear and dread when recollecting lessons on poetry. It was stuffy, irrelevant nonsense that meant nothing for an awkward, bumbling boy in Lancashire. I break into a cold sweat when I recall reading a stanza or two in front of a room of judgmental teenagers, baying for literary blood.
The Atlantic argues that this educational establishments can prove a "hostile environment for poets". Schools tend to be a place of a certain rigid language institution - poets do not thrive when there is a set and finite way to construct their work.
Instead of examining the beauty and wit of wordsmiths, both classical and contemporary, the poem is deconstructed as though it is a machine. The poem ought to be dissected than deconstructed for it is a living thing. Whilst the scholar wants the student to discuss why the poet used a certain word and why, this question is missed: what did it make you feel?
Stephen Fry, in his book on poetry 'An Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within', describes the sensation of reading it aloud: “Among the pleasures of poetry is the sheer physical, sensual, textural, tactile pleasure of feeling the words on your lips, tongue, teeth and vocal chords.” Yet, in many classrooms, you are left feeling numb, rather than experiencing the visceral senses of prosody.
The language in some poems is often alien to those in education. It does not mean that these poems from foreign lands and foreign times should be discarded; but they should be made accessible. Poetical genius uses universal language, even if it is not your mother tongue. Love is not restricted by border, nor are the hopes and fears of the writer. Once you unlock the meaning - the feelings, the emotions - you have a good chance of translating it to the student.
Poetry, and the teaching of versification, should both be magical and grounded; transporting you to different realms whilst offering a certain familiarity. These may sound like contradictions, but the Huffington Post's Roger Housen was able to communicate it: "And yet for all its magic, poetry uses the common currency of our daily speech. It uses words that are known to all of us, but in a sequence and order that surprises us out of our normal speech rhythms and linear thought processes. Its effect is to illuminate our lives and breathe new life, new seeing, new tasting into the world we thought we knew. Poetry bids us eat the apple whole."
Instead of killing poetry, the classroom can nurture it and inspire the next generation to read and write prosody. It can survive school - and even flourish - with the right kind of teaching.