EDUCATION: by Kevin DonnellyNews Weekly
Rhymes of the times: poetry's still important
, February 15, 2014
Research undertaken by Mary Weaven and Tom Clark from Victoria University into poetry teaching, published in English in Education, signals that poetry, for a range of reasons, is not mainstream when it comes to the English classroom.
Some might argue, so what? In an age of SMS messaging, social networking sites like Twitter and the fact that we are now an iconographic culture, it might seem studying poetry is obsolete and of little, if any, value.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Memorising, reciting, listening to, reading and analysing poetry should be an essential part of any child’s education, beginning in the home and continuing at school.
Poetry involves a unique type of reader response, very different from deciphering an IKEA manual or reading the timetable for the local bus line. The latter, as noted by U.S. academic Louise Rosenblatt, calls for what she terms an “efferent” response, where the primary focus is on gaining particular facts and information.
Poetry, on the other hand, calls for what Rosenblatt describes as an “aesthetic” response, one where the reader is challenged to recreate the poem in all its complexity and subtlety.
Reading poetry, Rosenblatt argues, represents a “lived experience” where the reader enters an imaginative world and is transported by the power of language and the poet’s ability to transcend the here and now.
Poetry, unlike SMS messaging, employs language in a rich and evocative manner involving metre, cadence, rhythm and technical devices such as alliteration and assonance that foster an awareness and appreciation of language.
The opening lines from Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem The Windhover, “I caught this morning morning’s minion, kingdom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon”, resonate in a way unmatched by the bleatings in the Twittersphere.
William Blake, in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, writes “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.” Most of our daily routine involves pursuing practical necessities and coping with existential questions about happiness, fulfilment, sorrow and loss.
At its best, poetry allows the reader to cleanse the doors of perception and to gain insight about what it is to be fully alive and discover a sense of truth and understanding. John Keats’s poem, Ode on a Grecian Urn, finishes with the lines, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”. The lines underscore the moral and aesthetic nature of art, and poetry’s potential humanising influence.
Matthew Arnold is well known as the 19th-century author of Culture and Anarchy. Less known is that he was one of Her Majesty’s inspectors of schools. In that role Arnold writes: “Good poetry does undoubtedly tend to form the soul and character; it tends to beget a love of beauty and of truth, high and noble principles of action, and it inspires the emotions so helpful in making principles operative.”
While some will argue that Arnold’s view is antiquated and unrealistic, of interest is that recent U.S. research suggests that reading literature helps readers to empathise with others and to walk in their shoes.
When I was working at a boy’s secondary school, one of the poems I taught was Robert Browning’s My Last Duchess. It was always interesting to see how long it took before the boys realised the misogynist nature of the duke’s feelings towards the duchess.
While it is impossible to know how the boys subsequently related to girls, there is no doubt that reading and discussing the poem raised significant issues about the morality of men treating women as possessions and why it is wrong to be arrogant and conceited.
As argued by Shelley in A Defence of Poetry, poets are the “unacknowledged legislators of the world”. Shelley describes poetry as the “expression of the imagination”, and for countless centuries, in the form of prophets and priests, poets have played a central spiritual role in society.
Poets speak wisdom and truth, divine what it is to be human and hold a mirror to society that shows us for what we are.
Poets also deal with archetypes, myths and fables that deal with what W.B. Yeats described as the spiritus mundi — the vast reservoir of images, stereotypes and narratives associated with the spiritual world.
And on a more practical level, as noted by Weaven and Clark, poetry also has a more worldly application. Reading poetry not only improves literacy skills, in their words, “Studying poetry is strongly associated with successful final exam results among English students.”
Dr Kevin Donnelly is director of the Melbourne-based Education Standards Institute and a senior research fellow at the Australian Catholic University. He has recently been appointed to review the national school curriculum with Professor Ken Wiltshire AO. This article first appeared in The Australian, February 1, 2014.