Wednesday, 28 October 2009
What is poetry for?
I was lucky enough to hear Tom Leonard read his poems a few weeks ago - the second time I heard him. The reading ending with questions and someone asked what started him off writing poems. I didn't expect him to mention Stephen Spender. But he did. He spoke of finding an exam paper in the school playground when he was 15 or 16 and on that paper he read Spender's poem "The Express." Tom Leonard mentioned that his father worked on the railway so he took an interest in the subject. But I wonder if he'd have been so interested in the poem if he'd encountered it in a classroom or exam.
I had some wonderful teachers who loved poetry and did their best to convey that love. (I also had one dreadful teacher who achieved the remarkable feat of making me dislike Hamlet). I've also tried to teach poetry within the English syllabus. It's an exciting and infuriating task because the teaching of poetry tends to talk round the central questions of what poetry is and what it is for.
If you're studying poetry for an exam, every poem turns from a thing of wonder to an object which must be interpreted, analysed and defined. I recall how, when I was in the the 6th form, my fascination with the poetry of John Donne was overshadowed by the question of what constituted "a conceit" and how I should write about the poetry in an essay. The thrilling oddness of Donne's images was smoothed away by the need to explain them in neat paragraphs about compasses, the opening up of the "new world" and so on. I was lucky that the craft elements of poetry were taught with encouragement to try things out - at least I learnt about metre, rhythm, cadence and form by writing rather than, as so many of today's students do, by a mechanical process of counting syllables and memorising Greek-derived terms.
I wouldn't condemn analysis of imagery, content, politics, craft, etc. - they are all enjoyable parts of the experience of poetry. But they aren't the main part and they don't answer the question of what poetry is for. Academic study of poetry often aims for a total solution - to explain away everything. But I don't believe any poet who has just finished writing a poem thinks, "Oh good! I've just written a wonderful set text" or longs to be set in an exam.
League tables and the need to measure degrees of success can easily limit the way in which poetry is read. "What does that image mean?" students are asked, "Can you identify the metre?" or "What is the poem's political perspective?" While the most sensitive and sophisticated response might confess uncertainty, students learn young that there are right or wrong answers and that a poem, like a quadratic equation, is there to be solved. Its component parts are pegged out and labelled and its political stance is subjected to praise or blame. Any pleasure gained prior to a solution is treated as purely incidental.
In most seminar rooms or classrooms, there's someone who ventures the opinion that a poem means whatever the reader thinks it means. It doesn't, of course. Wordsworth's daffodils remain yellow spring flowers however you happen to see them. The reader who think that daffodils looks like gladioli or Martians is making a serious mistake. And yet that insistence on the importance of the reader does say something important: it resists the stock definition that "solves" the poem and recognizes a transaction between the words on the page and the reader for whom they are meant.
I took a series of seminars and asked students to find poems they liked which puzzled them - poems that resisted an easy analysis or solution. And then I asked the students what they liked about those poems. They were hesitant at first - afraid of giving wrong answers or sounding silly. But as I scribbled their answers down, I realised we were getting closer to the answer of that impossible question "what is poetry?" And the answers were a helpful reminder that poetry isn't there so that people can pass exams - it's there to be enjoyed.
Here are some of the things students liked about poems:
- the sound of poems
- the way poems sing
- the way poems look on the page
- simple images
- seeing things in a different way for the first time
- playing with words and forms
- the sense that there's a deeper meaning that can't quite be reached
- snatches of sense
- unfamiliar words
- not understanding
- the puzzle
Students started to remember the way poetry seemed to them when they were very young. They recalled nursery rhymes, nonsense verses and magical, powerful words that they didn't fully understand - like swearing. We were, at least, on the edge of finding out what poetry was for, even if we couldn't quite define it.
At it's best, for me at least, poetry is to do with lasting wonder and the kind of mystery evoked by W.S. Graham's poems "What is the Language Using Us For?" When I read the first stanza of the first poem while browsing in a bookshop, I knew this was magic. I was swept into the mystery of the words:
What is the language using us for
Said Malcolm Mooney moving away
Slowly over the white language.
Where am I going said Malcolm Mooney.
You can read the rest of this poem - and the others in the sequence - here.
I don't want to stop and analyse the poems - I want to read and revel in them. An analysis would merely skirt round the edges. I could learn about the W.S. Graham's craft as a poet - and that would be useful - but the mystery would remain. The most apt response isn't an academic essay but closer to "Wow! I want to read that again," or even, "I want to learn that by heart."
Schools and universities are right to teach skills of analysis and puzzle-solving. But they run the risk of being constrained by what is easily tested and measurable. You can't grade students on the enthusiasm with which they say "Wow!" or give them marks for saying that a poem is an insoluble mystery. Yet their sense of awe and mystery may be as close as any of us gets to understanding the nature of poetry.