Suggestion Makes You Dream…
Many people are scared of poetry. They say that they can’t understand it and don’t know how to read it, and some simply choose to avoid reading poems entirely. How does this happen? When did poetry become something intimidating and inaccessible? It is particularly disturbing to consider this phenomenon when you realize that many of the essential joys of poetry are the first ones we experience with language. Small children delight in the sounds they make and hear. They repeat these sounds and words that they enjoy. The first words that children speak emerge like a repetitive chant. In that way, a child’s first words are like a first poem. It is that natural and easy. Small children love to rhyme, and many children’s first books are rhymed books. (Think Dr. Seuss). Rhyming is fun. Words are fun.
In elementary school, a playful approach to language is maintained, but it doesn’t last for long. The celebration of creativity is apparent when you enter most lower schools. Student art decorates the hallways. Illustrated stories and poems are stapled onto bulletin boards outside classrooms. You rarely see student art and stories decorating middle school hallways; however, and it is virtually non-existent in high schools. I’m not saying that the arts don’t exist in middle and upper schools, but their visibility is generally diminished. This shift in priorities happens in curriculum also. Hours dedicated to studying the arts are decreased in the face of preparing for standardized tests, and in today’s underfunded schools, arts programs are generally the first to go. There are rare and wonderful exceptions to this rule, of course, like Charleston County School of the Arts and the Ashley River School for the Creative Arts, but not for the most part arts curriculum in upper schools is minimal.
Two other factors contribute to the difficulty with poetry. One has to do with the poems that are often contained in textbooks. Generally speaking, they were written hundreds of years ago in language that is considered archaic by today’s standards. I love the English Romantic poets, and Shakespeare’s sonnets are exquisite, but with so much brilliant poetry being written by contemporary poets in familiar American vernacular, why not expose students to poetry that they can relate to and feel is part of their personal experience? Can you imagine a science or social studies textbook that only contained material dating back to the 1800s? It is absurd to consider such a possibility.
The approach to teaching poems exacerbates the problem. Students are asked to discern the meaning of the poem and analyze the structure and meter pattern, when they should first be asked to describe how the poem makes them feel. What does it make them think about? A poem should work a bit like a dream. Part of it may be very intense and resonate deeply within you. Other parts may not hold as much meaning. That’s okay. The great French lyric poet Stephane Mallarme wrote that suggestion makes you dream. A good poem has the same quality. It should evoke a memory or connect to an emotion or experience. It should articulate something that is difficult to describe in one sentence. A reader’s immediate associations with a poem are immensely important and need to be emphasized. Every poem should be read with this in mind.
When I was in graduate school at New York University, I studied with the Nobel Prize winning poet Joseph Brodsky. My husband and I went to hear him read his poetry in Russian. We did not understand a word of it, but we experienced the essence of each poem – heartbreak, love, injustice, joy. It was moving and entertaining, and now that Joseph Brodsky has passed away, it is an experience we remember and cherish. This poetry reading embodies what I am trying to describe. Try to think about poetry the way you think about art or music. Aren’t their songs that you love to listen to repeatedly even if you don’t understand the lyrics? Haven’t you seen an abstract painting that you responded to intensely, even though you couldn’t explain why? The next time you encounter a poem, read it aloud to yourself. Enjoy the sounds, and the let the language take you some place new. Let yourself fall into the dream created by a handful of words.
(This article was previously published in The Post and Courier in July 2006)