On Recovering Poetry for Our Children
by Steven Faulkner
I drive my children several miles every school day to a brick, one-room school house. On the way, I turn off the radio and ask them to teach me the poems they have been memorizing. At first they thought this was splendid fun, teaching slow-witted Father the poems they pick up so quickly.
But children tire easily and now they often don’t feel like going to the trouble of repeating, “Blow, blow, thou winter wind;/Thou art not so unkind as man’s ingratitude.” But I usually press on and begin repeating the lines myself. Soon they chime in and we are off and running together again, shouting “Hey ho, the holly! This life is most jolly!”
Children love poetry. They love the sound of it, even when they have no idea what is being said. The rhythms of the meter and the sounds of well-chosen words naturally appeal to them. Plato said that this was a gift from the gods intended to charm us toward the Good.
Plato thought that children should be taught to sing poems in chorus and dance to music so as to bring order to their wild little souls. He says that since virtually all children find it impossible to keep their bodies still and their tongues quiet, they need rhythm and harmony to order their movements and voices. For Plato, education was more than filling little minds with information; it was a training in the virtues, an ordering of the appetites, for which poetry was necessary.
Of course not all rhythm and music is good for the soul. In Book Two of The Laws, Plato investigates the kinds of music and dance that move the soul toward the Good and those that debase the soul. It is an obvious indictment of our times that young people are given over to every kind of perverse lyric, sensual music, and chaotic dance that disorder the appetites, while adults shrug this off as impossible to change.
We seem to think this a new problem, that other ages did not have to contend with children’s proclivity to sensual music and barbaric dance. Five hundred years ago, in the age of Shakespeare, Sir Philip Sidney was complaining that “measure, order, proportion be in our own time grown odious.” It is a persistent problem that many through the ages have recognized as typical of youth.
Charming Us to the Good
Plato thought that a society concerned about the virtues must seek to order the passions of their children by teaching them good music and good dancing. If the definitions of “good” dance and music “give us the slip and get away,” Plato said, “it will be pointless utterly to prolong our discussion of correct education, Greek or foreign.” If Plato is right, educational reform in this country is in a lot of trouble.
One way of charming children toward a good and ordered life is teaching them to memorize poetry. Most parents and teachers today would probably respond that their children are not charmed by poetry, that poetry is difficult and boring. And their children would agree. There are many obvious reasons for this attitude, including television and parents who themselves do not love poetry. Another reason is that the schools teach children to analyze poems before teaching them to memorize them.
Once when I was tutoring Kansas University football players, a massive linebacker, who had never met a poem he didn’t want to smash, handed me a sheet of some seventy terms a poetry teacher wanted him to memorize, terms like trochee, anapest, dactyl, spondee, onomatopoeia. I handed him a poem by Langston Hughes that takes the reader on a walk girl-watching in Harlem. It is not an erotic poem, but one that revels in all the shades of color we reduce to “black.” After a time, the linebacker’s face lit up like a child’s; he laughed and wanted to read the poem to me; he wanted to share his delight in a kind of beauty he had not recognized before. Perhaps a professional teacher might have some use for those verbosaurs, dactyl, spondee, and anapest, but most of us just need to read and speak the poems. Better yet, memorize them; get them by heart.
Poems as Music
I have had the good fortune of taking classes at the University of Kansas from two professors who made us memorize poems. Over the years, college students who rarely have been required to memorize anything but facts, dates, and theorems have been learning poems by Shakespeare, Milton, Tennyson, Frost, and many others.
The effect has been startling. Many former students say this was the best thing they learned in college. Students steeped in computer science, business, biology, and social sciences are unexpectedly caught up into regions mysterious. One of these students is now my children’s teacher, passing on to them (and to me) poetic words that, as Christopher Lasch put it, “order experience and evoke its depths.”
But it is unfortunate that so many have had to wait until college to learn what Plato said should be taught when the mind is supple and the imagination is alive to the wonders of the world. Too many college students already have grown cynical and are much too proud to appreciate poetry.
Parents should read aloud to their children. It is as delightful for the parent as it is for the child, for the parent not only learns the poems, but also gets to participate in the sparkle and laughter the children bring to the poems. “That’s my favorite part!” my six-year-old daughter always would say with a giggle and a bashful smile as we finished reciting Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem about the cow that “walks among the meadow grass,/ And eats the meadow flowers.”
The rhythms and music of good poetry are essential to the enjoyment of the poem. For this reason, poems should be spoken aloud. In a 1977 interview, Robert Penn Warren was asked how important the sound of poetry is. He responded, “No sound, no poetry.” English poet Walter de la Mare said the same: “Needless to say, we may value poetry more for its ideas, its philosophy, its message, its edification than for the delight which the mere music of its language may bestow. But that music absent, poetry, in the generally accepted meaning of the word, is absent.”
Of course, like Plato, we must make the necessary distinctions between good poets and bad. Too many modern poets have abandoned meter and rhyme. Free verse is something like music without a beat and without a distinguishable melody. It is difficult to read, almost impossible to memorize, and may in fact contribute to a child’s confusion.
Poetry To Open the Eyes
Following Descartes, modern poets have split thought from objective reality so that their poetry becomes nothing but the expression of their own feelings, merely sentiments, not re-presentations of, or judgments about, existences beyond the poet’s mind. Like Walt Whitman, they focus on the self and elevate the self to a godlike status. The poet becomes a creative deity who endows things with significance rather than a student, a lover, or a child who discovers the significance already there. The poet’s creative Self begins to loom larger than the universe.
But this creative Self is an idiot giant who cannot be counted on to make truthful statements about the existent world or moral judgments about right and wrong, because he records the wanderings of a mind awash in relativism. The old poets knew better. C. S. Lewis notes in his essay, “The Poison of Subjectivism”: “Until modern times no thinker of the first rank ever doubted that our judgements of value were rational judgements or that what they discovered was objective.” Aristotle’s famous dictum was that art imitates or re-presents nature. In such a context, poems open the eyes to the mysteries of the world, rather than trapping the reader in the mind of the poet.
Of course one does not need to entirely do away with subjectivity. In reading a poem, we are seeing through another’s eyes so that what we see is a reflection of both objective existences and of a poet’s inspiration about those existences. Jacques Maritain put it this way: a painting or a poem “is a sign—both a direct sign of the secrets perceived in things, of some irrecusable truth of nature or adventure caught in the great universe, and a reversed sign of the subjective universe of the poet, of his substantial Self obscurely revealed.” Subjectivity, the reader’s and the poet’s, are the lenses we use to view the cosmos. But a grand and mysterious cosmos it is where there are incredible secrets to be found, undeniable truths to be investigated, and adventures that take the breath away.
Begin with Wonder
We must leave those modern poets who have botched up the musical sound of poetry with free verse and have gutted it of real meaning with subjectivism; we must leave them to wander in the labyrinth of their own exclusionary minds so that we, and our children, may wander through the earth and, looking up at the stars, fall to musing with King David the poet:
When I look at thy heavens, the work of thy fingers,
The moon and the stars which thou hast ordained;
What is man that thou art mindful of him,
And the son of man that thou visitest him?”
The classical poets introduce the young to reality through delight. It is, as one of my professors has written:
a total education including the heart—the memory and passions and imagination—as well as the body and intelligence. The nursery rhyme and fairy tale first present the phenomena of nature to the child. “Twinkle, twinkle, little star” is a Musical . . . introduction to astronomy that includes some primary observations of the heavenly phenomena and stirs the appropriate human emotion—wonder. Now it is precisely this emotion that provides the motivating energy of education. . . Mistake me not: wonder is no sugary sentimentality but, rather, a mighty passion, a species of fear, an awe-full confrontation of the mystery of things. [Through which] the fearful abyss of reality first calls out to that other abyss that is the human heart; and the wonder of its response is, as the philosophers have said, the beginning of philosophy—not merely the first step; but the arche, the principle, as one is the principle of arithmetic and the fear of God the beginning of Wisdom. Thus wonder both starts education and sustains it.
Poetry, even children’s nursery rhymes, introduce a child to nature in a way that often evokes that proper response of wonder. A child who learns that a star is a gaseous ball of a certain mass and density and distance from the earth, may have his curiosity satisfied by the information, but will not respond as Robert Louis Stevenson’s child who, walking outside his house at bedtime sees:
…high overhead and all moving about,
There were thousands of millions of stars.
There ne’er were such thousands of leaves on a tree,
Nor of people in church or the Park,
As the crowds of the stars that looked down upon me,
And that glittered and winked in the dark.
The Dog, and the Plough, and the Hunter, and all,
And the star of the sailor, and Mars,
These shone in the sky, and the pail by the wall
Would be half full of water and stars.
They saw me at last, and they chased me with cries,
And they soon had me packed into bed;
But the glory kept shining and bright in my eyes,
And the stars going round in my head.
This knowledge does not dismiss the stars with a few statistics, but generates awe that one day might lead to the musings of the psalmist. Not only this, but the child also learns to see the miracles of the cosmos in all the little complexities of everyday life: that pail by the wall that is “half full of water and stars.”
Move toward Worship
Wonder is the workshop of worship. The child who wonders is moving toward worship. John Henry Newman spoke of the difference between scientific knowledge and a poetic knowledge that generates an attitude appropriate to worship:
The aim of science is to get a hold of things, to grasp them, to master them, or to be superior to them. Its success lies in being able to draw a line round them, and to tell where each of them is to be found within that circumference, and how each lies relatively to all the rest. Its mission is to destroy ignorance, doubt, surmise, suspense, illusions, fears, deceits. But as to the poetical, very different is the frame of mind which is necessary for its perception. It demands as its primary condition, that we should not put ourselves above the objects in which it resides, but at their feet; that we should feel them to be above and beyond us, that we should look up at them, and that, instead of fancying that we can comprehend them, we should take for granted that we are surrounded and comprehended by them ourselves. It implies that we understand them to be vast, immeasurable, impenetrable, inscrutable, mysterious; so that at best we are only forming conjectures about them, not conclusions, for the phenomena which they present admit of many explanations, and we cannot know the true one.
The child who learns the numerical dimensions of a thing may be tempted to think that his knowledge gives him a kind of control over it. But what real control does the knowledge that the sun’s light takes eight minutes to reach the earth give us?
We may be tempted to think that once we know this, we can keep the sun in its place, which is out of our thoughts, but why should such knowledge reduce wonder? The flight of light through millions of miles is still a marvel.
To Find Love
And wonder leads to love. Mary Midgley seems to echo Newman in saying:
It is an essential element in wonder that we recognize what we see as something we did not make, cannot fully understand, and acknowledge as containing something greater than ourselves. This is not only true if our subject-matter is the stars; it is notoriously just as true if it is rocks or nematode worms. Those whose pearl is the kingdom of heaven, or indeed the kingdom of nature, follow it because they want to drink in its glory. Knowledge here is not just power; it is a loving union, and what is loved cannot just be the information gained; it has to be the real thing which that information tells us about. . . The student will learn the laws and practise the customs belonging to the kingdom of heaven or of nature, trying to be more fit to serve it.
Which brings me back to my original point. In a chaotic world where our children are pushed to give vent to their desires and indulge their appetites, reading and memorizing poetry can be one way of ordering the soul, of disciplining feeling with form. More than this, poetry evokes wonder, and wonder leads to love, so that child and parent might find their place at the feet of God. As Josef Pieper put it: “Now, as always, the workaday world can be transcended in poetry and the other arts. In the shattering emotion of love, beyond the delusions of sensuality, men continue to find entrance to the still point of the turning world.”
Steven Faulkner is a doctoral candidate in English at the University of Kansas and resides in Topeka, Kanses, with his wife, Joy, and their seven children. His most recent Touchstone articles include “The Brothers Grim: Humorlessness Among the Religious and the Irreligious” (Spring 1995) and a companion piece to this article, “The Century of the Cyclops: On the Loss of Poetry as Necessary Knowledge” (Winter 1996).
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