A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature: over 400,000 monthly users
Part One: the Proposal
In the present situation of perpetual crisis, I have read many “answers” as to what the human race should do with itself to avoid environmental doom. Most of these focus on ways to continue to do as we already are doing but employing some inventive, creative spin so we somehow use less, pollute less, stress less and generally slow down and soften up even as nation-states strut their nationalistic stuff, demagogues vent and corporations focus on quarterly earnings. Since the door seems to be open to any and all thoughts and proposals, I have one: give all high school students a year devoted to nothing but poetry.
In the face of the STEM initiatives that the society has embraced wholeheartedly, this may seem particularly perverse. I’m okay with that. The practical, which for many means the practicable, along with commonsense, realism, pragmatism and other no-nonsense, down-to-earth nouns, has long held a treasured spot in the annals of American education debate, such as the debate has existed in the first place. When I used to hear people prating about “back to basics,” I wondered how people thought that schools had ever gone beyond basics. Whenever discussions of cutting the local school budget came up, art and music tended to be the first to go. No commonsense in playing a violin or trying your hand at painting. Football, however, was sacrosanct.
A year of poetry would be, accordingly, a hard sell since few adults bother with poetry beyond some occasional national event—a poem read at a presidential inauguration that creates some hoopla. Otherwise for most hardworking Americans, poetry would be something to be pulled out for marriages and funerals and otherwise left to its own antique, seemingly quaint devices. Instagram poetry has burgeoned in the cyberspace but its shelf life (probably not the right techno phrase) is short. In some circles, the therapeutic benefits of poetry have been acknowledged but many endeavors have turned out to have a therapeutic side. Poetry as poetry, a good unto itself, is something else.
Since we are language using animals, it seems fair to say that nothing affirms that ability as succinctly, eloquently and incisively as poetry. I take the subject in its broadest reach—from Shakespeare to Millay, from rock ‘n roll to haiku to chants to odes to hip-hop to Tin Pan Alley to Ecclesiastes. There are endless possible stops on the track, much more than a year could handle. The intention of the course would not be to establish some hypothetical canon but to recognize the range and excitement that goes with a very various totality. Poetry isn’t just one thing.
As it embodies urgent language, poetry is especially suitable for the young who have yet to be subdued by life’s various mills. They are trying life out. So is poetry. They want to get to the heart of the matter. So does poetry. They are prone to avowing their feelings. So is poetry. They hunger for someone to tell them the truth about anything. Poetry can do that, particularly since it offers all manner of emotional truth—affections and, as the Italian poet Cesare Pavese put it, “disaffections.” They are eager to gain hints about how to live. Poetry can supply them. At the same time, they sense how mysterious existence is. So does poetry.
Beyond reading and hearing poetry, since poetry is an oral/aural art and meant to be listened to, a crucial part of the year of poetry would be writing poetry. This would seem to go without saying but, again, the ugly voice of commonsense might quickly make itself felt. What could be more of a waste of time? Schools are about learning. What is to be learned in writing much-less-than-imperishable verse? Well, one could learn how challenging it is to make language render your thoughts and feelings in a relatively confined space. One could begin to feel how imagination underlies the whole human endeavor and that each person has been gifted with an imagination. One could feel that poetry is an art of many generations and that in writing poetry one claims one’s place in that chain. One could start to see how language wants to be respected as an instrument that centuries of use have shaped and reshaped and that each person is presented with as an opportunity and responsibility. Eloquence of some sort is always possible. Not least, one could feel how nothing is quite as personal, in an affirming sense, as writing one’s own poem.
None of this might mean anything to many people. Yet the lockstep of courses constituting a high school English curriculum hardly seems inviolable. The issue is belief in poetry as a permanent value. Beyond the religious notions that go with a Christian context, the continually contested democracy we glibly call “America” has been leery of permanent values. Things change from election to election, from decade to decade. The emphasis has been to somehow keep up but not stray from those hallowed basics—whatever, beyond reading and arithmetic, that might mean. For many an American Adam or Eve, education spells corruption.
As for poetry, what looms in the background of many a mind, marred by insipid teaching and distrust of any degree of art, is that poetry is frighteningly subjective. No right answer is going to offer itself. No multiple choice test can come to the quantitative rescue. Poetry asks for appreciation and sensibility: which of these two poems do you prefer and why? This may seem an idle question, but, as far as I can tell, our lives are founded on choices of feeling and sensibility. Intuition is no small matter. Insight flashes and then disappears. We can’t order up metaphors, but we can learn to recognize their power, to welcome the taut coherence they can provide, the genius of associative thinking—or the treachery of a phrase. The war in Vietnam was fought, in part, over the metaphor of dominoes.
Some schools are doing precisely what I am advocating but given the present manias—hyper-testing, accountability, the blandishments of technology—and the money invested in those manias, there aren’t many. More’s the pity. The hand wringing over drugs, despair and suicide doesn’t have a simple answer, but a year of poetry would offer hope to many who don’t understand that they are human beings who have instinctive gifts that poetry can unlock. I founded a conference on poetry and teaching (that is on-going) because I wanted to put my feelings about the importance of poetry into the world and help those who wished to connect with one another. In an age focused on personality and celebrity a few poets are known but the issue isn’t fame and prizes. The issue is something that has its own particular, long-standing strengths to lend to any body of learning, strengths that deserve recognition. There is no shortage of poems and no shortage of strategies to deliver the poems. The failing lies in our wariness. It’s true: to embrace poetry is to embrace a degree of uncertainty. Yet what else is life?
Part Two: Coda with Adam Zagajewski
In all the educated answers to our planetary grief something is typically missing—spirit, that which leads us to enthuse and attend carefully and even love. The schools sit there, filled with pupils waiting for something beside the prospect of lawful, wage-earning adulthood. Poetry loiters in the hallway, occasionally called in for the AP test, but largely ignored as an active participant. Why not give this wordy presence a chance? What did Adam Zagajewski write? I quote from Another Beauty:
“To defend poetry means to defend a fundamental gift of human nature, that is, our capacity to experience the world’s wonder, to uncover divinity in the cosmos and in another human being, in a lizard, in chestnut leaves, to experience astonishment and to stop still in that astonishment for an extended moment or two. The human race won’t perish if this capacity withers—but it will be weaker, worse off, different from what it was throughout those millennia when every civilization placed poetry, in whatever form, at the heart of all human endeavor.”
You say that the school board has not heard of Adam? But they should. A quiet grief permeates the practicality of budgets, agendas and outcomes: they don’t know what they are missing.
Copyright 2022 Baron Wormser
Baron Wormser’s many books include The Road Washes Out in Spring: A Poet’s Memoir of Living Off the Grid (University Press of New England 2008).