Is Poetry Dead? by Wendy J. Dunn
Introduction to Poetry by Billy Collins.
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a colour slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
Teachers are wonderful, teachers are great
Teachers are certain people’s best mate.
But that depends on where you’re coming from,
Some of us wouldn’t dream
of taking teachers to the prom.
Some teachers are ugly, some teachers are bad,
Teachers are mean and they’re never sad.
Teachers are graceful, teachers are sweet,
And they never ever ever have smelly feet.
Emily (not her real name).
Already a serious writer, Emily was eleven-year-old and in grade six when she wrote this poem. She looked a serious writer, too, in glasses that dominated her elfin, pretty face and with that faraway, reflecting expression of writers everywhere. Before she moved on to High School, Emily was a proud columnist of the school magazine at Eltham North Primary, the school where I teach one day a week, and especially drawn to poetry. When I asked her why she loved writing verse, she replied:
It is an enjoyable style to write. I can write about anything I like. Poems can be fun little rhymes, such as limericks, or they can be stronger, powerful words that make you think about things.
Almost echoing T.S. Eliot’s observation that poems are “a raid on the inarticulate” (Eliot cited by Hecq, 2009), her intelligent and insightful response didn’t surprise me. What did surprise and concern me was the response of other, equally intelligent and articulate students at my school.
Poetry doesn’t make sense, one said. Another believes, not connecting the vital relationship between music and poetry, modern music has taken the place of poetry. “How many people have poetry on their Ipods?” Johnnie asked when I asked him my question. Off hand Luke responded that he thinks poetry has little relevance because most children and adults do not use it in their everyday life. Some students saw poetry simply as a hobby taken up by a very strange few. “Just because you get taught poetry in school doesn’t mean you should have to use it when you’re older,” added another students. Juliet believes that not many people want to read old poetry, “Especially the young generation like us.” Almost echoing Jeremy Bentham, a 19th century philosopher, who once said that poetry in the future would have no more importance to society than a pin-table machine, these students and others believe poetry is a dying art. Are they right?
Writing poetry was my first important step as a writer in childhood and still enriches me – both as a writer and teacher. Breaking out into poetry indicates the state of my creative health. If a poem beats its pulse in my head, I know my creative well is bubbling away, its unblocked source coming from my very depths.
Yes – I write poetry, which probably explains why I enjoy teaching poetry. My poetry is birthed through life, the good and the bad. Offering my poetry up for public scrutiny leaves me more naked and vulnerable than offering my prose, underlining the unique power of making poetry and its ability to tap into our true selves.
Young children haven’t yet learnt to hide away behind masks that life puts on us. I believe that is one of the reasons for the special and strong connection between poetry and very young children. No one has told them that John Keats’s once said: “If poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all”. If Keats had ever taught children in junior school he would have realized they are the leaves to the tree. They do not doubt their right to write poetry or its worth.
Hearing poetry, writing poetry, reciting poetry will give a classroom an atmosphere that only comes through embracing and true engagement with learning. Time after time, I have witnessed the concentration of young students as they clap and count out the syllables of their haiku poems. I have seen their joy and pride when they share their poems with their classmates. I have seen children’s wonder of the poem. Their poems.
As Emily already knows, the power of poetry deepens our thinking skills. It makes us think about language and reflect about words. If we reflect long enough we begin to see the power of language, constructing our written voice. William Somerset Maugham once wrote, “Words have weight, sound and appearance”. Writing poetry helps us know their shape, their strengths, the hues of their meanings, how we can fit them into architecture of language and construct those important bridges of empathy. Words are the stones with which we build. This poem by a past student from my school, then in grade four, is a beautiful, touching example of how poetry can speak directly from one heart to another:
I am a whale,
I swim in water as cold as hail.
My baby swims by my side,
We glide and glide through the low tide.
Everything is calm beneath me, the blue water swishes,
Something creeps closer in the distance.
I think of my good wishes,
The object is tall and white
I hope it doesn’t bite.
I edge closer to my baby
and clutch its tiny fin,
She might be thinking
the same thing as me, maybe.
I heard screams and wails,
Nobody remained beside me.
I opened my eyes,
The sea that surrounds is a darker colour, not blue.
Blackness, blackness was all I could see,
As my heart gave off its last three beats.
I was a whale,
I swam in water as cold as hail.
My baby used to swim by my side,
We would glide and glide through the low tide,
In the place we used to live.
Basil Eliades, an acclaimed Melbourne poet and artist, says straight and to the point that poetry is not a dying art, stressing that the question itself is inaccurate and fundamentally wrong. Understandably passionate about poetry, Basil believes what students learn at school, their means to an end, is not as important as students learning the process of learning. Metacognition, knowing about knowing, is what matters. Eliades says that true learning happens when students connect to a subject and reach a point of excitement and passion, researching in depth into that subject and then come up for air to realize how their learning links to everything else.
“When students learn poetry in isolation, when it is not connected to their everyday lives, students don’t see the intimate links,” Eliades told me. He believes that students need to see learning as an act – for this is when they arrive at self-correction and become true practitioners, taking on the process of lifelong learning.
One way that Eliades engages students with poetry is to get them to memorise poems. By doing this, Eliades’s believes students take on the essence of the poem and carry it with them throughout their lives. Students may not fully appreciate these poems when they first memorise them but there will come a time, the light bulb moment, that epiphany, when true connection happens.
Eliades also stressed that when a student groans, “that poem doesn’t make sense,” the student is really only saying “I just don’t get it yet.” By learning to learn, student tackles the next step. “What are the references, the images, what does the poem say to me?” Learning involves repetition and pattern. That’s why nursery rhyme books and other rhyming books are so important to early education for brain function and training. Basil Eliades believes teaching poetry in schools covers everything.
Human beings are rhythmical and repetitive creatures. Rhythm of words was one of the first and foremost learning aids. Rhythm and pattern helps us remember – and memory is necessary for our very survival. Via rhythm and pattern of words we connect to storytelling, unlocking knowledge and owning learning.
As if replicating our very heartbeats or the movement of the universe, we express our connection to rhythm and pattern by creating visual arts, dance, music and prose. In earlier times, when writing and reading seemed like a hidden mystery that belonged only to the priest or scribe, our ancestors learnt the narratives of their cultures via the storytelling of the arts. Poetry was an irreplaceable part of the methodology of storytelling.
History remembers its debt to Homer, Sappho, the Welsh bard Taliesin, Blondel, Christine de Pizan, Chaucer, Shakespeare, but they are only a few amongst a great body of practitioners of this art form that carries on to this present day. Poetry beats a heartbeat that will continue as long as humanity exists.
I am an idealist. I wish we lived in a world where this question about whether poetry is a dying art wouldn’t even come up for discussion. Loving poetry as I do, I cannot help worrying when too many students, mostly older students, express their lack of interest in poetry. Should we, as educators, be hearing alarm bells? Is this lack of interest more evidence about the health of our society – a society forgetful that a poem is the essence of the human voice? Surely we should be willing to listen to it in respect and with desire to understand, whether it howls to the wind or sings with the birds.
Creativity is the essence of our beings. I became an educator because I wanted to help students discover and own their creativity, that well of purpose that will keep bubbling and nourishing them throughout their entire lives. Writing poetry is one of the myriad ways we tap into our creativity. Embrace creativity and we join the catalyst for change, renewal, growth, and map out those places that make the difference between lives lived well or not at all. Writing a poem is akin to seeing a tree become verdant with new life. We are trees. Let our leaves fall, and be as if the leaves in Shelly’s Ode to the West Wind:
Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,
Scatter, as from an unextinguish’d hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawakened earth
Let me conclude with a verse from one of my own poems:
Between you and me
Together we cross
Cogito, ergo sum
I say no.
* All student names have been changed.
Hecq, D. (2009) Lecture 7: Making Poetry. Swinburne University. Melbourne.
Useful poetry sites:
Mark Carthew, Writer, Editor, Educator
- How to Teach 4th Grade: The Poetry Unit (expatteacherman.com)
- 30 Ways to Celebrate- Poets.org – Poetry, Poems, Bios & More (hcslearningcommons.org)
- No, poetry is not such a hard nut to crack (nation.co.ke)