It’s Friday. 2:55. The sky a granite-grey as the heft of the clouds seem to throw themselves into your classroom. You’ve just spent 45 minutes teaching, exploring, discussing a poem. In fact, not just any poem, but a great poem. A beautiful poem. Heaney’s ‘Blackberry-Picking’. Mid-sentence you notice a hand shoot up from the corner of the room. You stop and nod your head towards the boy as if to say, ‘please, go on’. He clears his throat and then asks: ‘Sir, why are we doing this? What’s the point?’
Now, your initial response is to chastise, to point out the ostensible rudeness, but you pause. Is it rude? Is it meant to be? Or, if phrased in a different manner, is it a genuine attempt to understand why we should bother with poetry? An expression, maybe, of frustration, of not understanding what the purpose or point of it all is. Now, aside from the framing of this question in our imaginary scenario, it does raise an important question, one not to be shied away from but addressed directly, emphatically: why should we teach and students learn about poetry?
I recently finished reading John Burnside’s excellent The Music of Time: Poetry in the Twentieth Century. It is a book filled with personal reflection, poetic exploration, analysis, anecdote, but, uniting all of this, is a central question that Burnside seeks to answer: what function, if any, does poetry have? What role does or could it play in society? What is the point in writing, reading and studying poetry? Has its power and importance been sustained into the twenty first century?
I think this is such an important question, and the responses that Burnside offer so insightful, that I wanted to use the space of this post to capture and distill some of his thinking through a series of quotations, before then suggesting some broader thoughts of my own.
And so, here are just a couple of ways in which Burnside tries to answer this fundamental question:
Poetry saves the world every day. It is how we declare our love for things and for the other animals; it is how we remember, in spite of a constant diet of hard’ science, that the ‘invisible’ informs the visible in ways beyond our direct telling; and it is how we nurture hope, cradling it in words and music as a hand cradles a flame against the wind. It is how we define ourselves as something more (than a mechanical being for whom ‘the chief good and market of his time/ Be but to sleep and feed’ (and make money). This is what we are; this is what we do. We make culture. It doesn’t matter if it’s poetry or baseball or German Expressionism, but some kind of magic is what we are here to perpetrate. For the most part, we do the other things (the money stuff, the daily round of chores and obligations, the rendering unto Caesar) so that we can have some kind of poetry in our lives and, no matter how powerful or rich or privileged they are, we pity those who either do not have it or who possess it as an acquired thing, a badge of authority or status, a gaudy ornament or a mere entertainment. Poetry is how we give shape to our griefs, the better to see and measure and. in time, heal them, winding them, along with our quotidian pleasures and our reasons for joy, into the fabric of history, both personal and common, folding each individual experience of place and time into the shared music of what happens.
Poetry as a discipline heightens the attention of both poet and reader. This act of paying due attention is in itself a political act, for it enhances both our appreciative and our critical abilities, which are key to defining a position in a societal sphere in which both these faculties are currently at risk.
The plain fact is, then, that poetry does not seek to change the world in the usual sense. On the contrary, it aims in every possible way to reaffirm the world that we actually inhabit, in all its vital, messy, beautiful, tragic reality. It is not so much the case that poetry makes nothing happen as that it attempts to reveal what is already happening, to offer a context to events and so propose a means by which the noise of time can be re-experienced as the music of what happens.
That more than anything, is what poetry does. It nourishes us, it contributes to our grieving and healing processes, it gives focus to our loves and to our fears, allowing us to sing them, at the back of our minds, in a deliberate and disciplined transformation of noise into music, of grief into acceptance, of anger at pointless destruction into a determination to save at least something of what remains. Poetry makes so much happen, in fact, that I am at a loss to count the ways and, though Frost’s golden age of poetry and power may never come, no other art form has done so much to establish the basic human truth which must serve as the touch stone of our judgment.
This knowing without being able to explain what (or why) we know, this apprehension, this faculty of intuition is outside the realm of logic where, as Wittgenstein says, ‘what we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence’ is of the essence of poetic enquiry.
Following this argument, in which an accumulation of seemingly diverse but interconnected events combine to effect tipping points and chain reactions in the social sphere, it seems as reasonable to treat a poem (or any other work of art) as a potential catalyst. If we recall Auden’s words – that poetry ‘makes nothing happen but that it offers a context, a way of happening’- we begin to see that the social function of the poem, if it has one at all,is bock to provoke us to reflection and, at the same time, to cast a new light on the matter at hand.
What, then, to make of this? Could it help us on Friday at 2.55 when our imaginary boys raises his hand? Yes and no. In the immediate moment, I think probably not. But, in the long term, I think definitely yes. When I teach poetry I tend to treat them as individual entities. Yes, I would make connections across, say, an anthology and try to build a thematic pattern but I don’t really teach the trajectory or narrative of poetry as a form. I don’t frame our discussion of poetry by directly addressing and exploring and emphasising the point of doing it. I don’t do enough of answering the question: why poetry? I might explore ‘why this poem’ in the sense of what this specific poem we’re looking at does, what it says, how it makes us feel, but this is quite different to addressing why even poetry at all.
This, then, is something I want to do more: framing the teaching of poetry by exploring and discussing the value and importance of poetry as a medium. Why does it matter? Why, for thousands of years, have humans turned to poetry to confront the realities of their existence? What has it and what does it continue to offer us? This could even involve taking some of the excerpts above and talking about them with students. It is a way of offering a wider context to what we are studying and reading: not just why this poem or why this anthology, but, openly and honestly, why even poetry.
You make many excellent and very important points. As it happens, we’re investigating poetry in schools and looking for new poems for (secondary) schools to use in an upcoming issue of our poetry magazine, Magma 85 – see call for contributions at http://www.magmapoetry.com