“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.