Friday, September 25, 2009

A Teacher's Quasi-Rant on Poetry and a Glance Towards God

"Poetry without rhyme is like tennis without a net."
- Robert Frost

I have a confession to make, before God and all.  I, an English teacher and one deeply enamoured of her subject matter, hated poetry for much of my life and still feel a great deal of contempt for large swaths of the stuff.  It is often silly, banal, syrupy stuff by which mediocre writers find justification to puff themselves up and act superior, because they are poets, darnnit, and if you don't like it, you just don't get it.

Bollocks and hogwash, say I.  Be a man, fess up: you just don't know how to clearly and articulately make a point, so you are obscure and call it art.

(This, incidentally, is nearly identical to my argument against and condemnation of much modern art.)

In college, I finally found a poet I liked -- loved, even.  Then came the "click" that Shakespeare was in fact all poet and only partly playwright.  I had to give the genre another shot.  What I discovered was that I loved the play of words and how great poets, rather than string together random thoughts in whatever self-satisfied format they darn well please, work within the constraints of a class of poem and make it sound good.

I showed my 8th graders Willy's Sonnet #18 yesterday.  When I told them they'd be reading and understanding Shakespeare by the end of the period, I theatrically asked them, "Do you believe this?!"

In one resounding, monotone voice of utter disinterest, they replied, "No."

But understand it they did, and some of the girls were just beaming and squeeing at the unadulterated romance of it.  One boy asked, "Why doesn't he just tell her she's hot?", and before I even opened my mouth to respond, a girl called out, "He could have, but he has to work to make it all fit like that and sound so good, so she's obviously going to like it better."

Yes, exactly.  Forcing thoughts and words into specific parameters forces us to think, to find the best possible way to say aloud what lies in our hearts.  The results are downright magical sometimes, enough so that this formerly adamant opponent of the genre now gives some of it a respectful nod -- and even an occasional read.

It goes back to my fascination -- yes, perhaps even obsession -- with language and how it functions.  I like prose because it is utterly flexible, allowing everything from one word statements to sentences like the one I just read in One Hundred Years of Solitude that literally went on for two pages without an endmark, but poetry obliges deeper consideration.  And, like almost everything, it echoes how God gives us both limitless freedom and unmovable boundaries.

You had to know I would bring this back to the whole "theophany" thing, didn't you?

As a reader, I'm still not crazy about poetry, but as a teacher, I'm trying to give my students some appreciation of form's potential to reveal Truth, because that same potential lies in all writing. 

Apprently, it starts with getting my girls to go all mushy over a summer's day and my boys to envy Willy's abilitty to make the girls go all mushy. 

You take what you can get.

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