Dead poets live

To kill a poet, one needs only turn him or her to stone. Dull, dense stone. I remember the expressions on the faces of my classmates in high school English. Imagine rolling-eyed, grimacing youths with mouths tilted like Escher staircases listlessly mumbling lines of lyrical beauty in tones as dull as the faux-wood desk at which they slouch. That was just with Homer. It was worse with Keats. Wait ’til we got to Shakespeare.

I’d bet that over half my class left tenth grade English with a revulsion for poetry and perhaps all of the literary arts. I suspected that even the teacher couldn’t avoid being infected by the intractable boredom shown by her class year after year.

Why is poetry so poorly served in school? Should it be taught at all, if it is to be in such a wooden, perfunctory way? Well, if we’re going to do it, then let’s do it better.

First, away with wooden memorization. Rote memorization is the fastest way to kill the mockingbird of poetry. And away with arcane terminology and general mystification. Our experience of poetry should be immediate, personal, and rooted in our feelings in this moment.

Take the Iliad, for example. I could say that it’s the hoary old story of some dead white men slinging spears at each other in hubristic folly with the help of a pantheon of fallible and whimsical Olympian gods. Or, I could relate it to the lives of each and every one of us who is not a lump of rock. Who has not experienced fear, and jealousy, and pride, the desire to be famous; who has not admired strength, or sought revenge, or regretted losing something precious? We don’t have to be ancient Greeks to hear the immortal poet speak to us. Glory? There’s glory enough in Homer to outshine two millennia.

What about the Odyssey? Ask yourself: have you ever missed home, missed someone who is dear to you? Do you still? How far would you go to see them again? The song of Odysseus is a triumph of the spirit, a homecoming in spite of all odds. Have you ever felt lost, adrift, wanting a thing no matter who or what stood in your way? With wits, guile, and resourcefulness aplenty, wily old Odysseus whispers to us still.

Don’t believe me? See Stanley Lombardo’s bold new translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Their fresh and modern language is powerful and attractive-and there’s an audio version of each (here: Il. and Od.) performed by Lombardo himself. Poetry is meant to be read aloud. Poetry is a song that is its own music.

But what has this fluff got to do with the two parts of philo-scifi? Fair question. Actually, it’s got a lot to do with them. After all, philosophy isn’t about fancy terms or abstruse jargon. It is simply coordinated energy: life energy harmonized in the light of reason, knowledge, and experience. The highest stage of this dance we call life is beauty and wisdom. As Keats ends his Ode on a Grecian Urn, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

With this in mind, it’s no surprise that some science fiction writers, like Dan Simmons, have tried to connect poetry with sci-fi. As readers and writers confronting the future, we are hard pressed to put into words this sense of awe. Poetry helps fill the gaps. Simmons infuses his novel Hyperion with a poetic vision: a sort of combination of The Canterbury Tales, Beowulf, and Keats. That vision creates philosophical sci-fi of an epic scope.

There are two basic kinds of memory: not long-term and short-term, as we usually think, but reconstructive and recognition memory. (I get this idea about memory from sci-fi writer Samuel Delany.) Somewhere in the space between them, there is desire, there is poetry. There is the recognition of beauty and the attempt to reconstruct it. Poetry, by condensing desire into an art form, becomes for us a bridge to a purpose and a whole. A poet sees something and tries to recreate it, or create it using the music of language. Just like music, poetry is at times melodious, at times cutting and jarring. But always it exists in that energetic space between recognition and reconstruction. Without this tug and play of two forces, a poem cannot zap us with the right kind of electricity.

Maybe that’s why a lot of high-schoolers have a hard time relating to old poems. At that age, life has not yet flowered in them. They do not have sufficient experience yet to trigger that recognition in their hearts. Better that they should be helped to find their own voices first, before they learn the voices of others. We should try to understand rather than point fingers. (Haven’t we all been there before?) They have to grow, to get in touch with their own feelings first and foremost.

I believe that poetry education has failed us for the same reason as a lot of public education: it stuffs us full of facts and fails to inspire or draw out of us a response to those facts. Education should be the kindling of a flame, not the final word. For in poetry, as in the dance of life and dreams and hope, never, never is there a final word. And to read and write poetry is to carry on that flame: “To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die.” (Thomas Campbell, Scottish poet)

So when you read poetry, try to see poets and their poems not as dead letters, but as keys to help you discover our imperfect and marvelous world. Poetry is nothing if not a description, in colorful, endlessly varied language, of Beauty, Death, Truth, and Love, all things that matter in our lives. If poems do not speak to us, then all the strophes, troches, pentameters, metaphors, similes, alliterations, allusions, and rhymes we regurgitated in school will mean nothing.

John Keating (the character played by Robin Williams) in the movie Dead Poets Society had a great line: “We don’t write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. Now medicine, law, business, engineering-these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love: these are what we stay alive for.”

I believe it. If you do too, then even a simple rhyme that you jot in your journal because it makes you smile is a treasure. Be attentive to the voices of life. And at last, find your own voice and make your own poetry. Sing out!

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