“We become tired of the task before we can comprehend the beauty”

Proof that approaches to the problems of poetry, like the problems of economics and peacekeeping, don’t so much get solved as just prorogued in unique and revolutionary ways, I give you Lord Byron on the state of his British public school, in 1800 or so. This from a tangential discussion on an early draft of Childe Harold, as reported in John Galt’s The Life of Lord Byron:

I wish to express that we become tired of the task before we can comprehend the beauty; that we learn by rote before we can comprehend by heart; that the freshness is worn away, and the future pleasure and advantage deadened and destroyed by the didactic anticipation, at an age when we can neither feel nor comprehend the power of compositions, which it requires a acquaintance with life, as well as with Latin and Greek, to relish or reason upon. For the same reason, we can never be aware of the fulness (sic) of some of the finest passages of Shakespeare (‘To be or not to be,’ for instance), from the habit of having them hammered into us at eight years old, as an exercise not of mind but of memory; so that when we are old enough to enjoy them, the taste is gone, and the appetite palled.

I found out about the novelist John Galt’s 1830 biography of the then-recently deceased Byron just last month, and a relative managed to secure it for me (in a hardbound, non-Google Books version) when I made the somewhat impossible demand of it for a Christmas gift. It’s pretty incredible so far—full of curiosities, double entendres, and a written in a fiercely protectively tone when it comes to its subject, who I imagine would have been unpopular in many circles at that time (not to mention, at this time).

Byron’s rejection of the Classical Education strikes me as both dissident and, in small ways, familiar to my reactions to my own education. Galt goes on to say of other poets “Cowley also complained that classical education taught words only and not things; and Addison deemed it an inexpiable error, that boys with genius or without were all to bred poets indiscriminately.” I feel like I’m the product of an educational paradigm (and, it follows, a sociological one) that went far out of its way to breed the fewest poets it could. My junior high and high school education featured only poets with concerns, passions, and means of expression so alien to me they struck me as deformed and irrational, as separate from my own world as the most experimental contemporary word-mixer would have sounded. These poets, of course, included Byron, and Keats, and the whole romantic clan.

I hope that, as I hear more and more young educators harp on the necessity of returning poetry to the classroom, that this progressiveness of intent is not cancelled out by a conservativeness of selection. I can say the following with certainty: that the order in which poets were introduced to me stunted my earliest interest in poetry. If that order had been reversed (starting, perhaps, with poets writing in my own country, or the next one south, during the two or three decades leading up to my birth, and moving on from there through history and with mounting degrees of difficulty) I would have arrived as an adult poet much more eager and enthused by the prospect of seeking out voices from new eras and traditions. But, because we do not want to breed poets indiscriminately (poets being known already as fairly indiscriminate breeders in their own rights, lol amirite?) I submit that, if such faith in the contemporary isn’t possible in the hard-line world of reading lists drafted for school boards ran by angry homemakers, then my second preference is that you simply not teach any poetry at all. As Byron would say, wait until poetry can be an exercise not just of memory but of the whole mind (read: college, and not even freshman year, but post-drinking aged college, at least). Poetry, like all underground arts, lives in the mysterious, and so it is ideally approached by a suitor when the suitor is old and “acquainted with the world” enough to see its beauty. We shouldn’t round them all up at a young age and betroth them to it, en masse. If we’re not capable of doing this important thing correctly, surely not doing it at all is the best alternative.

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10 Comments on ““We become tired of the task before we can comprehend the beauty””

  1. Hands of poetry school board kaisers! Let it be (in schools).

    Michaelmatician’s Poetic Professions of Manifolds Non-Technic:


  2. Stephen Rowe Says:

    To an extent I believe that poetry is often hammered into the student at too young an age, but really what kind of cut-off point, if indeed one should be applied at all, is appropriate? I feel that had I not been allowed access to poetry in school my interest an understanding in it would have been hindered. There is a certain basic knowledge towards approaching literature that should be taught in school as a basis and background to build upon later and without this some potential poetry-interested individuals might be turned off from this whole section of literature. It is also important to be aware that a large percentage of the population will not experience poetry in any other way than through the classroom (think of the varying backgrounds and resources, both economic and educational, that students come from).

    I think it wrong to assume that an introduction to Canadian poetry (as opposed to British or American) would solve the problem of relevance. Even today there is much Canadian poetry I read that isn’t personally relevant to me or many people I know (due to Canada’s identity issues and the range of regionalism present both now and in the past, finding anything truly engaging for a wide variety of readers is no easier than for any other discipline). In Newfoundland this problem seems to have been tackled by prescribing a heavy dose of “Newfoundland” literature as a way of making reading and language more engaging. From my own schooling, I remember some of the earliest works I studied being by Newfoundland authors. At the time there was a strong sense of common culture experienced by most people in the province, which included what it meant to be a “Newfoundlander”. It’s not quite the same today, as is evidenced by a lack of traditional association among the youth, many of whom are more and more becoming distanced from the roots of their people and becoming students of popular-contemporary culture.

    Perhaps you are on to something when it comes to a more contemporary approach. Something more modern that youth can connect with may allow them access to the tools required to explore the mystery of poetry in a way that is not too off-putting. Levels of difficulty should also be taken into account (how many students find Elizabethan (Shakespearean) verse difficult at first?).

    Regardless, you will have a large percentage of the population not caring about poetry anyway, just as a large percentage doesn’t care for other disciplines. If poetry is an “underground art”, as you say, then one might wonder how changing access and interest in it will affect or change the art itself. What would happen if poetry came to be written and published as prose is? Who would be the Dan Brown of contemporary poetry? What kind of reaction would this engender in other writers?

  3. voxpopulism Says:

    Hi Stephen.

    I’m not really interested in massive public acceptance, that’s not what I mean. The question needs to be: How best can poetry education deliver the seed of interest in the medium to those young people who would be prone to accept it?

    The “cancel everything” angle is short of A Modest Proposal on my part, I’m not in favour of giving up poetry in the classroom in its entirety. I would argue, though, that many times it has done more harm than good, and that the nation is populated by a certain number of people who mistakenly believe they hate poetry.

    I don’t think nationalism or even the contemporary is a silver bullet, either. But it seems like a more logical starting point than the willful imposition of the opposite, doesn’t it?

  4. Jake, I don’t think the major problem is relevance to the student. It’s that most of the poetry taught in school is probably irrelevant to the teacher. I’ve known quite a lot of English majors over the years with little to no interest in poetry. Lots of them become teachers. And they teach poetry because they have to, not because they want to, so their selection is bound to be ill-informed and conveyed with no great enthusiasm. Get a good teacher choosing poetry they love and it catches fire in the classroom. So it was with me and my high school English teacher, who gave us Shakespeare, Coleridge and Lawrence among others. I still remember those classes.

  5. Jonathan Says:

    Hi there,

    Does appreciating “good” poetry depend on intellectual training? My frustration with the public school system has always been that it teaches things only and not thinking. Granted, who wants fifteen-year-olds learning philosophy from competent teachers? Certainly not parents or government, and probably not most people over the age of 21. Of course, to teach people to think for themselves is to teach them to be subversive, and the “best” literature can usually be found sadistically mauling society’s most cherished beliefs.

    I think part of the problem with the way poetry is taught in secondary school has a lot to do with the lack of intellectual training given to students — a deprivation which has as much to do with the quality of teachers, most of whom are (or were, in my experience — I doubt much has changed) not very good intellectuals. However, there are plenty of really good intellectuals who don’t like poetry at all — those evil, rationalistic scientists and analytical philosophers who think that the serious study of literature (and especially poetry) is intellectual quackery; Noam Chomsky probably cackles indulgently every time he encounters a poet. Ergo: being an intellectual does not fulfill both the necessary AND sufficient condition for appreciating the kind of poetry discussed on this blog. Probably a necessary one, though.

    What else?

    I didn’t appreciate poetry until I took a class on contemporary poetry (my first real introduction to the poetry of this and the last century) in my third year as an undergrad English major. It was taught by a sessional lecturer who sported the kind of flowing locks and goatee that would win first prize at a Renaissance fair, but who dressed like he had just stumbled out of a rock concert, and who drove a beater because he’d squandered all his money on small press chap books. Most of the students in the class were also really keen to learn the stuff, which may provide a third (after “more relevant poetry” and “impassioned, skilled instructor”), if unhelpful, wildcard, condition for imparting the appreciating of poetry in a classroom setting: at least a few good students. Group idiocy has a poetry-appreciation dampening effect capable of sabotaging the relevance of the most immediate poetry and the efforts of the most brilliant instructor.

  6. voxpopulism Says:

    Those are all good points, too. And not something I had considered. The teachers, however, were once students too, and I imagine their interaction with poetry on both sides of the classroom has always carried a certain amount of requisiteness and the baggage that associates with that. The cycle has no ends.

    The only time Coleridge caught fire in my classroom was when this guy I knew lit his Norton on fire.

    Happy New Year to you and yours.

  7. Brian Palmu Says:

    Zach Wells is on the mark that unenthusiastic teachers can turn off many students. But I’m not as up in arms as was , say, Irving Layton, when he raged against this perpetual state by wondering, in exasperation, and paraphrasing, “from what rotten barrel of apples are these teachers selected?” Those predisposed to poetry will eventually find it.

    That said, inspiration and (more to the point of the original post) specific selection and sequenced introduction is important. I agree with Byron’s view, but he’s talking about Shakespeare at 8 years old. Poetry, to kids then, should be FUN! Doggerel, nonsense verse, simple rhymes, ballads with strong rhythms, lotsa “There was a young lad from ….”,. But that goes against the school admin’s desire for “learning”, which usually translates into boredom from grades 1 through 12. Most teachers are awful, but they’re working with an overview from people who have a next-to-nil grasp of child psychology and development.

    As for the teen years, I disagree with Jacob on the prevalence of Keats, Byron being a detriment. Yes, they’re better appreciated in college, or as an adult outside the educational system, but an intro to some of, say, Shelley’s short lyrics, or the gorgeousness of Keats’ language and music can only help, both as pedagogy AND pleasure. “Hamlet”? Yeah, that can wait. So too can Beckett. But this subject demands a lot of thought, though it’s not difficult if we just recall our own development and desires.

  8. voxpopulism Says:

    Well put, Brian, with regard to the need for nonsense verse, etc. I feel like we have great contemporary (Dennis Lee) and less contemporary (Lewis Carroll) versions of that. And there’s lots of good stuff waiting for the young adults. The points in between (essentially ages 11-18) are the hard stuff though. Most poetry that sets itself up to be “for teenagers” is a wasteland. I’m sure there’s good stuff out there somewhere, but I haven’t come across it. The key would be to identify what in the adult canon is really the stuff of adolescent readership, in disguise. I’d argue that superficial approachability is important, it should be about things recognizable to the student. If that means it needs to be contemporary and North American, so be it.

    I don’t have enough faith in the nation’s high school English teachers to get over the obstacles of superficial approachability inherent in the romantics and arrive at the deep relatability of their message and the beauty of their words. Simply asking, “And what does ___ MEAN when they say this?” isn’t enough. There’s good teachers everywhere, obviously (including the ones that read this blog), but on the whole, we need to cater to the intellectual competence of the student and the professional competence of the instructor, both. I’d have a little more faith in the former, except that it suffers from being the product of the latter.

  9. For me the question has always been can metaphor be taught. I had one wonderful teacher, Homer plante, who had a knack for teaching metaphor, but that is rare. I insist on metaphor because that is the explosion that is the poetry in the poem, but I have been a long time student of Gaston Bachalard, and I find metaphor going by the wayside more and more. I once saw an Italian gradeschool book of poetry where children were already exposed to the haiku of Basho, Buson,Issa,and others.Perhaps the language critics have done more harm than good by attempting to de-mystify the metaphor. In my personal life I devised various word games for my children which have now made them adept at metaphor. At least for this I am pleased. The problem is all the problems already mentioned here by others, but also this question of metaphor. We are too certain in ourselves. We need to close our eyes and walk in the dark, and then we might discover poetry again. We need to let students know that their instinctual reactions to a poem are more than just valid; they are everything.

  10. Salvatore Ala Says:

    Just to add to this: consider a poet as brilliant as Hart Crane. Crane is not even often mentioned by other poets, let alone taught in school. I’ve heard other poets say that they don’t understand him,his language is too difficult, his metaphors too complex. We want to be guided by the hand. We want to be sure, to swagger with our surety that every aspect of the poem has been understood.We forget that we are never certain of anything,not in life, or a poem, so when Crane writes an image like “adagios of islands” I am perfectly happy with the half I understand and the half I don’t,both being part of the splendid experience of living art.

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