Poetry is a paradox. It is the most complex and inimitable expression of thought and consciousness, but it is also the most natural and ancient. Although a form of oral and written tradition that has persisted throughout the years, poetry is dismissed as unnecessary and impractical in literary education…
A decline in English majors at universities demonstrates that the field is losing popularity amongst students. This decline might be the result of a perceived impracticality of literature, but it should be considered whether it’s the field itself that is erring. An example that illustrates how the teaching of literature is failing short comes from one of its most important constituents—poetry.
Poetry is a paradox. It is the most complex and inimitable expression of thought and consciousness, but it is also the most natural and ancient. Although a form of oral and written tradition that has persisted throughout the years, poetry is dismissed as unnecessary and impractical in literary education. The problem with teaching poetry is not that the language is too difficult; it is that the questions that poetry explores are no longer considered valid. Literary critic Harold Bloom described poetry as “the crown of literature” because it is a “prophetic mode.” To be prophetic, however, poetry needs to contain a wise understanding of truths about man in order to provide a glimpse into the future. Perhaps a decline in the popularity of poetry in classrooms is related to an increasing rejection of universal truths as a guiding principle for undertaking studies in literature.
Whenever an English teacher or student is asked to defend the value of their (seemingly) leisurely field, the argument tends to turn into a defense of literature as a way to teach effective communication. “Effect,” however, is synonymous with persuasion rather than formation. Literature, then, is a means for a tactic acquired rather than an exercise of thought and inquiry, and all that poetry is within the field of literature is merely complicated and flowery language for what could otherwise be stated directly. Instead of teaching students that, through poetry, they can inquire about the world and their place in it, they are taught that through poetry they can convince others about their individualized truths and feelings. These feelings become the authority in a classroom that denies objective truth and universal human experience as a product of poetry.
In 1833, John Stuart Mill stated that the object of poetry is “to act upon the emotions,” which is what distinguishes it from fact and science. While math and science does its work by “convincing or persuading,” poetry does so by “moving.” But students are no longer being moved by poetry because its aim in classrooms seems to be more in line with Mill’s understanding of science. In other words, poetry no longer moves the soul, it persuades the mind. The postmodern rendering of literary analysis has made poetry a practice in understanding subjectivity, and now poetry is dismissed because we no longer view it as a serious mode of study: we use it either as a test for our level of literary comprehension, or as a medium for our own exaltation. Yet the inquiring nature of poetry geared towards understanding life is what results in the “moving” of our soul because it is what allows us to connect with a stranger’s sentiments on a personal level. Poetry acts upon our emotions, but it achieves this in no small part by searching for a truth and understanding that we all share that truth.
Still, Mill was right to mark the distinction between poetry and science. Poetry is a form of inquiry and corroboration for what we call true beyond what can be scientifically proven. But much like math and science, good inquiry ought to lead us to gaze outwards, not inwards. While we do not use poetry to question the chemical composition of a flower and the seasonal changes that affect its growth and withering, we do use it to contemplate beauty and death. To say that there are universal truths to humans is to say that forms of art and self-expression are ultimately attempts at discovering and understanding what we cannot unveil through epistemological means. By believing that there is a right and a real that we can discern, forms of art such as poetry become a universal language to relate commonalities in our experiences. But when right and real are rendered subjective, so is poetry. Poetry, then, loses its legitimacy as a form of philosophical inquiry about the soul to which all of us can relate, and instead becomes an amateur form of life sharing to which only some of us can relate.
Now that truth has been declared a myth in education, the methods for teaching the liberal arts—of which poetry is a part—have naturally been pulled towards two ends: either a scientific method form of explanation of human phenomena, or an inane outpouring of sentiments to express how we feel regardless of facts or reality. Neither of these ends, however, makes for a proper reading and creation of poetry. The rationalist, who thinks that we can know everything through reason alone, and therefore do not need tradition, invalidates art as a serious form of inquisition for knowledge about the world. The post-modern absurdist, who thinks there is nothing that can be known universally, renders poetry and art at large into a subjective form of expression where anything goes and nothing is true because its contents are swayed by irrevocable culture, class, race, and gender politics.
Needless to say, literature has moved more towards the postmodern end, which is why it is being taken less and less seriously as a field of study. If or when poetry is taught for emotional effect, it is taught in a form that makes the reading and writing of poetry seem like a sentimental exercise, the academic equivalent of a visit to a therapist for which you didn’t sign up: A poem is displayed on paper as one would place a strange lab animal on a tray, ready to be dissected with a knife until it is broken up and broken down into analyzed, rationalized bits and pieces about the author and his intention for writing the poem rather than what the work is actually saying. At least Derrida gave the process an honest name.
It cannot be overstated that the use of poetry is collective, not individualist, which is why its use is vital for the preservation and understanding of our human history. Neither poetry nor its readers are apt to tear down the towers that humans have been building from a foundation of literary tradition as old as our very existence. If taught as a form of inquiry, poetry inculcates the importance of humility and tradition in knowledge: its verses invoke nature, mythology, history, literature, and other important facets of our human experience because we cannot know anything alone. We rely on our past to form an understanding of who we are, so although poetry is an individual practice, it becomes part of a communal form of inquiry directed towards discovering universal truths. Reading poetry can add another level to our tower of what has been said before. Poetry, then, should not be used against itself to throw spears at what we’ve built as a collective understanding, fortified throughout ages, of what it means to be human.
We are teaching poetry upside down by making students break down poems before they can appreciate them and grow with them. As a result, students become critics for a realm they have not yet explored to its fullest, because they have not yet lived long enough to do so. The use of poetry in a classroom should be neither overly practical nor overly sentimental. As poetry is a form of expression that is inquisitive and formative, it ought to be used for that very purpose: to form the minds of people who will likely ponder about the same things that people before them did. An appreciation for poetry is found—and it really requires seeking and effort—in the space between the rationalism and postmodernism that is prevalent in our lives. If we continue to teach poetry from a utilitarian angle geared towards persuasion and analysis of our own subjectivity rather than as an inquisition for truth, it will lose its true effect as a medium that inspires us to look beyond ourselves—what poet Dana Gioia accurately called “poetry as enchantment.”
Poetry appreciation is a nobler task than poetry analysis of criticism, and it is a seed that can be planted in our early years of education. Successful teaching of poetry where students walk away having their interests piqued and with a sense of inquiry about the nature of being is possible insofar as they understand that through reading someone else, they are reading themselves; through reading about another time, they are reading about their time. Students will only find a purpose in poetry if poetry is directed towards a sense of “truth” about existence that outweighs other forms of subjectivity. A proper teaching of poetry will motivate students to read and re-read poetry, since reading poetry over and over allows us to get something new every time: Truth reveals itself gradually through experience, after all. When we learn to read a poem for the questions that it raises and its effort at seeking a form of truth about the obscurities of life, we gain the virtue of patience to learn about the world and ourselves.
Republished with gracious permission from The American Conservative (June 2017).
Note: On the decline in English university majors, see “Humanities Majors Drop” by Scott Jaschik.
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The featured image is “Der Arme Poet (The Poor Poet)” , by Carl Spitzweg (1808-1885), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.