By Gabriel Blanchard
What role should poetry play in education?
The study of poetry, in our day, tends to be thought of as a difficult and rather specialized thing. It is certainly true that the poetry of the last hundred years includes some of the densest, most challenging verse in our tradition. For instance, while we may be enchanted by the sound, we are unlikely on a first reading to grasp what Charles Williams meant by the stanza: “Carbonek, Camelot, Caucasia / were gates and containers, intermediations of light; / geography breathing geometry, the double-fledged Logos.” It calls for a good deal of knowledge of literature in both verse and prose, and even some familiarity with Williams’ other work, to understand it. Should poetry, then, once the form of all literature, be relegated to the specialists?
Well … hang on.
For one thing, poetry remains very popular and accessible in certain forms. The academic study of popular music is still in its infancy, but—though few follow classical forms—most songs are poetry, regardless of genre. Hymns, limericks, and nonsense verses like Jabberwocky continue to thrive. The most sophisticated forms of poetry may have reached a point where it takes almost as much education to read them as it does to write them, but poetry as such is still an important element of culture at all levels.
This alone would give us cause to teach poetry. However, if we are going to do so at all, it would be a pity to deprive them of the best the western canon has to offer—Shakespeare, Donne, Coleridge. Perhaps the most advanced material will be still be left to specialists; but after all, that’s true of most disciplines.
So how should we approach teaching poetry? Obviously the most important thing is to read it, but we cannot (and would not wish to) read every poet, and probably cannot even read every great poet. How do we determine which poets most merit our attention?
Like all arts, poetry consists of subject matter and form. Poetic forms may be read silently, spoken, or acted (as in plays); and poetry usually covers certain topics and ignores others—a poem about the Trojan War feels natural in a way that a poem about itemized tax deductions would likely not. Poets that introduce major revolutions in either subject matter or form therefore seem to call for the most attention in teaching poetry. I propose that, whatever other poets we also include, we should make a point of these five:
1. Æschylus. As far as we know, drama as we know it did not exist before him. Earlier versions did, involving only a chorus and a single actor, reciting verse by turns; Æschylus introduced the innovation of multiple actors who spoke with each other and not only with the chorus, and all subsequent drama (naturally including prose drama) depend on this development.
2. Virgil. Homer, Beowulf, and Milton are equally good introductions to epic poetry as such; however, Virgil represents a major turning point in the nature of epic. Where Homer sang of the personal fortunes of heroes like Achilles and Odysseus, Virgil introduces an idea of a divine vocation that not only shapes his hero Æneas, but carries historical or even cosmic significance.
3. Guillaume de Lorris. Like Virgil, de Lorris’ significance is more in poetic content than in form. He was an early poet of courtly love, which has transfigured our idea of romantic love for nearly a thousand years and produced some of the finest and most celebrated verse in the canon.
4. Gerard Manley Hopkins. With Hopkins, we return to a marked change in form. Classical verse was written in what’s called “quantitative meter,” which determines rhythm according to the number of syllables per line; however, the more natural way of speaking and writing in English is what’s called “accentual meter,” which determines rhythm primarily by how many stresses there are per line. Hopkins broke with the classical convention, establishing a completely new kind of meter which he called “sprung rhythm.”
5. T. S. Eliot. In Eliot, we observe a third major change in poetic form. He rarely used set poetic meters or bound himself to consistent rhyme; the bulk of his output is thus “free verse,” but it is not structureless. The music of his poetry is extremely subtle, requiring great sensitivity in the ear to perceive and in the voice to convey.
If you liked this post, take a look at some of our others here at the Journal, like this author profile of St. Thomas More, this “Great Conversation” piece on mathematics, or this student poem on the beginning of World War One. And take a listen to our weekly podcast on education and culture, Anchored, hosted by our founder Jeremy Tate.
Gabriel Blanchard is a proud uncle to seven nephews, a freelance writer, and a staff editor for CLT. He lives in Baltimore.