Are we studying poetry to death?

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Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock

It might seem a strange thing to say, especially to those who don’t have fond memories of studying poetry in high school, but the love of poetry is innate in human beings. Children instinctively delight in rhythm, rhyme and repetition, which cultivate and extend their natural sense of wonder at the world:

Twinkle, twinkle little star
How I wonder what you are!

If children take a natural pleasure in poetry, why is it that so many people lose interest in poetry as they get older? As a lecturer in literature, I sometimes come across students who are suspicious of – if not hostile towards – poetry.

Something has clearly gone wrong between the nursery and the time these students enter university.

Poetry no longer delights them. Instead they see it as something wilfully obscure, as something they must dissect in search of hidden meanings.

But this is clearly not why people write poetry and it’s not really what poetry is for. How then did we get to this point?

Are we studying poetry to death?

Perhaps one reason why poetry alienates many people today is the emphasis in high school and university on a ‘scientific’ approach to its study and to education more generally, an emphasis that has come to characterise Western civilisation since the Enlightenment, as James Taylor argues in his wonderful book Poetic Knowledge: The Recovery of Education.

There is nothing wrong, of course, with studying a poem in order to appreciate its attributes as a work of art, including its stylistic features, its use of tropes and a range of poetic devices.

However, if the poem does not have direct sensory and emotional appeal then such ‘scientific’ study will become sterile, a mere ‘academic’ exercise.

In such cases, “we murder to dissect”, as William Wordsworth lamented, destroying the experience of poetry in the name of analysing it. By ‘scientific’, Taylor does not so much mean the work we do in laboratories; he refers rather to a certain approach to learning that is different from what he calls (following Blessed John Henry Newman and others) the ‘poetic’ approach.

Newman, in a little known essay on St Benedict, argued that the poetic understanding of the world is “the antagonist of the scientific” understanding.

“The aim of science is to get a hold of things, to grasp them, to handle them, to comprehend them; that is (to use the familiar term), to master them, or to be superior to them”.

By contrast, the aim of the poetic approach demands that we should not put ourselves above things “but at their feet; that we should feel them to be above and beyond us, that we should look up to them… It implies that we understand them to be vast, immeasurable, impenetrable, inscrutable, mysterious”.

The poetic approach is essentially one of humility – the virtue so prized by St Benedict – before the grandeur of the universe.

How do we enjoy poetry again?

Vast. Impenetrable. Inscrutable. Mysterious. How can we recover this sense of the fundamental poetry of things? Recovering our love of poetry itself (in its written and spoken forms) would be a good place to start. And this is easier than it might seem. We simply need to pick up a good anthology of poetry. We should not be worried about comprehending everything in a poem the first or second or even the hundredth time we read it.

We do not need to be literature lecturers or formally enrolled students in order to appreciate poetry, any more than we need to be astronomers to delight in the night sky.

We simply need to turn our attention to poetry, away from other distractions for a while, just as we need to go outside, away from our televisions and computers, to appreciate the glory of the stars.

It’s a very small but real step from Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star to star gazing, or from star gazing to Twinkle, twinkle little star, and another small step from there to the psalmist (“Praise Him, sun and moon, praise Him, all ye stars and light”) and to the Catholic poet and priest

Gerard Manley Hopkins (“Look at the stars! Look, look up at the skies!/O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air”).

It’s another step again from there to Dante’s Divine Comedy, which celebrates “The Love that moves the sun and the other stars”, as the last line of the poem declares.

By the time we’ve reached the heavenly stars in Dante’s epic, perhaps in middle age, perhaps a little earlier or a little later, we will have come a long way, step by step, on our poetic journey. Yet this progress really only returns us to where we started, to the stars in the night sky, which we appreciate now more deeply, with renewed freshness, almost with the eyes of a child.

Poetry makes the familiar strange, restoring our sense of the profound mystery of things and in doing so it makes us see these things anew, as if for the first time.

On earth, and in heaven

The Bible, of course, is full of poetry. The Song of Songs is probably the greatest love poem ever conceived (“Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away. For lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone”).

Our Lord, too, is the most poetic of teachers. Whether it’s the lilies of the field or the birds of the air, the mustard seed or the lost sheep, St John reclining on our Lord’s heart or the women running excitedly from the empty tomb – the Gospel narratives appeal directly to our hearts and our imaginations, the province of poetry.

The relationship between the poetic and the religious is not incidental, either, nor accidental. In fact, according to the teaching of a Greek monk, the Elder Porphyrios: “Whoever wants to become a Christian must first become a poet.

“The soul of the Christian needs to be refined and sensitive, to have sensibility and wings, to be constantly in flight and to live in dreams, to fly through infinity, among the stars, amidst the greatness of God, amid silence.”

This does not mean we all need to write poetry, but it does suggest we all need to approach the world poetically, which means in a sense we need to become like those little children delighting again in a nursery rhyme. And that, truth be told, is how even the greatest of our poems must seem (even Dante’s Divine Comedy!) from the perspective of heaven.