This fall I had a poetry post made for the school where I work. It’s a simple post with a plastic box for the poems and every couple of weeks I put copies of a different poem in the box. I include the author and publication site for the poem. To add interest and newness to the post, I made a ceramic plaque for it. It’s a pleasure to share poems I love in the box and to see them disappear day by day. I put about 15 poems in at a time and within a couple of weeks, enough people have found the poem meaningful enough to take with them. Occasionally, people write me a note telling me how much they appreciate the poem, or how it moved them, as someone did again this week for Maria Mazziotti Gillan’s poem, “Betrayal.”
This week I read the white paper for the Pioneer Institute, Public Policy Research, written by Anthony Esolen, Jamie Highfill, and Sandra Stotsky, “The Dying of the Light,” about the value of poetry instruction. Whereas the current trend in education is utilitarian and values data collection and sameness, poetry is something that enlivens the human spirit and the imagination. Poetry is an art form, doesn’t fit in a utilitarian category, and perhaps this is why it is minimized in the Common Core education standards. The Common Core, as the Huffington Post says, is “an education push that aims to make sure students across the United States are learning the skills they need to succeed in a global economy.” While one of education’s purposes is to help people find their place in the world where they can contribute to the common good using their abilities and skills, humans are much more than cogs in an economic machine, and education should nurture the human element as well–that part of us that is asks questions about existence and that stands in humility and awe before creation’s beauty. Or have we in our competitive workaday world and habitual rhythms lost our awareness of a world larger than our own–of creation in all its wonder?
Perhaps we need to ask ourselves what kind of world we want to live in and how are we nurturing our children through our education system to create that world. As Exolen, Highfill and Stotsky assert in “The Dying of the Light,” we might need to ask ourselves “What is a child for?” Do we want to raise our child to simply fill a role or do we want the child to be awake to life? One of poetry’s functions is to help the reader to see the world’s beauty, to notice life, and to experience it deeply in all its complexities and paradoxes. Poetry can help us see ourselves and our interconnection to the world and to each other. “One does not read poems to learn about poetic techniques. That again is backwards. One learns about poetic techniques, if one learns about them at all, the better to read poems; and one reads poems for their own sake–that is, because they are beautiful and wise,” say Exolen, Highfill and Stotsky.
Though more poetry is being published than ever, poetry is not read by the general public nowadays. As we have culturally moved toward modernism and postmodernism, as in other fields artists, and poets, in general, no longer sense themselves as a voice of their culture or their time and place in history when they write. Gardner points out in his book, Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed: Educating for the Virtues in the Twenty-first Century, that there is no longer any common agreement about what is beautiful. Beauty is more a matter of subjectivity he states. But does this mean it should not be nurtured? Humans were created in the image of God, our Biblical myth tell us. Robots may be able to do a lot of the thinking we used to do and do it more rapidly, but as E.O Wilson in his book, The Meaning of Human Existence, points out, “With more and more decision making and work done by robots, what will be left for humans to do? Do we really want to compete biologically with robot technology by using brain implants and genetically improved intelligence and social behavior? This choice would mean a sharp departure away from the human nature we have inherited, and a fundamental change in the human condition.” The humanities and the arts connect us to the essence of ourselves. They explore meaning amidst the myriad gray areas of life. We are alive when we are connected to a creative act. Wilson advocates that we “promote the humanities, that which makes us human, and not use science to mess around with the wellspring of this, the absolute and unique potential of the human future.” Our humanness and our relationship to the world is the very subject literature and poetry explore.
Pushing aside poetry and the arts in our educational system demeans our humanness and lessens the “unique potential of the human future,” to use Wilson’s words. Because it can’t be measured easily, because the processes are organic and slow, because they are subjective, does it necessarily mean poetry and the arts are not important? Dana Gioa, previously chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, explains in his essay, “Can Poetry Matter? Essays on Poetry and American Culture,” how people who write poetry and work in academic setting often are required to publish frequently in order to keep their jobs. He goes on to say, however, that “In art, of course, everyone agrees that quality and not quantity matters.” Creating anything takes time, and years of effort in most cases, to create quality.
Poetry is not reviewed seriously, Gioa says, and this is one of the reasons it’s not taken seriously. It used to be that poets once held many different occupations other than writing poetry. Nowadays, most poets are also teachers. Still, poetry matters to the “entire intellectual community,” Gioa explains, because it “involves the role of language in a free society. Poetry is the art of using words charged with their utmost meaning. A society whose intellectual leaders lose the skill to shape, appreciate, and understand the power of language will become the slaves of those who retain it—be they politicians, preachers, copywriters, or newscasters.” Gioa suggests that when writers share poetry, we share not only our own, but others’ as well, that we combine it with other arts, and that we devote more of our time in schools not to analyzing poetry, but to performing it. “Poetry needs to be liberated from literary criticism. Poems should be memorized, recited, and performed. The sheer joy of the art must be emphasized.” This is what kept it alive for centuries, Gioa asserts. Though I have referred to Gioa’s essay that I’ve quoted from on this blog in previous posts, I come back to it again in this post because of the insights it offers.
Poetry matters deeply to me, and I want others to be able to experience for themselves the gift it is to our lives–how it can wake us up, connect us to each other, and help restore us. A poetry post is one way to keep poetry’s voice alive and to allow people to see how it is that poetry enriches, inspires and strengthens us– how it continues to speak to our spirits.
The poem copies I put in the poetry post box this week are already gone. It encourages me to know Gillan’s poem has spoken to others the way it spoke to me. A poetry post is a simple way to share poems with others, and as one parent recently wrote me, “It is amazing to see how far the poems from this small box reach.”