Enchanter la vulgaire réalité.
There is such an enormous amount of poetry criticism and poetic theory published at present that it seems impossible that any significant topic is neglected. Yet there are inevitably blind spots. As scholars and critics pursue the themes and theories of the moment, other subjects remain overlooked. Some topics have been neglected so long that they now seem not merely unfashionable but quaint, eccentric, even disreputable. This essay explores one of those disreputable subjects, one that I’m quaint enough to consider important, perhaps essential, to the art of poetry. It is a topic so remote from contemporary literary studies that there is no respectable critical term for it. Lacking a more stylish appellation, I’ll borrow an antiquarian term, enchantment. That very word should cause responsible readers to cringe. What comes next? A damsel with a dulcimer? The horns of Elf-land faintly blowing?
There often seems something crude or naïve about essentialist views of poetry. Anyone with an advanced degree in literary studies knows there is no professional future in trying to connect the art of poetry with its putative human purposes. There are too few hard facts and too many value judgments involved to make this a safe area of academic inquiry. That is probably why the poet-critics who have made the most persuasive claims on the primal aspects of verse have mostly been outsiders, such as Ezra Pound, Robert Graves, Edwin Muir, Kathleen Raine, William Everson, Robert Bly, Les Murray, Wendell Berry, and—to name one non-poet—Camille Paglia. To put it mildly, these poets have not written in the language of academic discourse. They relied mostly on experiential argument, mythic allusion, historical analogy, and personal narrative, often peppered with amateur anthropology or psychology. At their worst moments, as in Graves’s The White Goddess or Bly’s Iron John, they have claimed visionary authority. Private inspiration may be the stuff of poetry, but it is toxic to criticism. Nonetheless there is something interesting going on in the speculative work of these outsiders besides prophetic delusion or bard-envy. They share a conviction that poetry—both its creation and reception– has great human importance that needs to be not merely understood but periodically renewed as a spiritual capacity. They also view poetry as a foundational element of education. Often reckless by scholarly standards, their criticism attempts to open new conversations rather than annotate and negotiate old ones. A little recklessness goes a long way, but sometimes literary culture needs to go a long way, too.
<span class=”pullquote-left”>Private inspiration may be the stuff of poetry, but it is toxic to criticism. </span>This essay examines what seems to me a current misapprehension about the nature of poetry. It further suggests that this misunderstanding has created problems in how the art is generally taught in schools at every level of education. To address the topic adequately would require a shelf of books in half a dozen fields. Instead, I offer some preliminary observations, hoping to intrigue rather than exhaust the reader.
Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises.
—Caliban, The Tempest
Let me begin with three crucial observations about the art of poetry. First, it is the oldest form of literature. Indeed, it is the primal form of all literature. Poetry even predates history because it not only existed, but flourished before the invention of writing. As an oral art, it did not require the alphabet or any other form of visual inscription to develop and perfect a vast variety of meters, forms, and genres. Before writing, poetry—or perhaps one should say verse—stood at the center of culture as the most powerful way of remembering, preserving, and transmitting the identity of a tribe, a culture, a nation. Verse was humanity’s first memory and broadcast technology—a technology originally transmitted only by the human body. In Robert Frost’s astute formulation, poetry was “a way of remembering what it would impoverish us to forget.”
Frost’s pithy definition is usefully ponderable. He calls poetry “a way of remembering,” which is to say a mnemonic technology to preserve human experience. He claims the loss of what it preserves “would impoverish us,” which is to say that poetry enriches human consciousness or, at the very least, protects things of common value from depredation. Finally, he asserts that poetry maintains these virtues against the human danger “to forget.” Here Frost acknowledges that the art opposes the natural forces of time, mortality, and oblivion, which humanity must face to discover and preserve its meaning. As Frost said elsewhere, one of the essential tasks of poetry is to give us “a clarification of life . . . a momentary stay against confusion.”
The second observation is that poetry is a universal human art. Despite post-modern theories of cultural relativism that assert there are no human universals, there exists a massive and compelling body of empirical data, collected and documented by anthropologists, linguists, and archeologists that demonstrates there is no human society, however isolated, that has not developed and employed poetry as a cultural practice. Most of this poetry, of course, has been oral poetry. Many of these cultures never developed writing. But the fact remains—and it is a demonstrable fact, not mere opinion—that every society has developed a special class of speech, shaped by apprehensible patterns of sound, namely, poetry. Cognitive science now suggests that humans are actually hard-wired to respond to the sort of patterned speech that verse represents. Like the songs of birds or dances of bees—but on a higher level of complexity—poetry reflects the unique cognitive capacity of the human mind and body. Why humanity universally needs this special class of speech is another question entirely, which will be considered in a few pages.
Third and finally, poetry originated as a form of vocal music. It began as a performative and auditory medium, linked to music and dance and associated with civic ceremony, religious ritual, and magic. (The earliest poetry almost certainly served a shamanistic function.) Most aboriginal cultures did not distinguish poetry from song because the arts were so interrelated as to be porous. Nor did the classical Greek or Chinese cultures two or three millennia ago differentiate poetry from song. Verse was not spoken in a conversational manner, which was an early twentieth century development. Poetic speech was always stylized—usually either chanted rhythmically or sung, sometimes even sung and danced in chorus.
In oral culture, there is no separation between the poet and the poem. The author is a performer who vocalizes the words. Creation and performance are inseparably linked. Without writing, a “text” has no existence outside the auditory performance. What matters is not fidelity to some invisible Platonic text, but the efficacy of the performance in casting a spell of heightened attention over the audience—whom the poet or performer can actually see. Purely verbal forms of poetry only emerged gradually, probably after the invention of writing, but the art’s musical origins were preserved coded in the meter and other formal elements. The development of phonetic and logographic writing systems made it possible to preserve the text of a poem on a page, and scribal technology gradually allowed poems to be written for the page. But even then authors were reluctant to sever the relationship between poet and singer. Until quite recently, poets still assumed that the typographic text would be vocalized in some way by the reader.
The poet’s identity as sacred or tribal singer continued to be invoked throughout Western literature from Virgil’s “Arma virumque cano” to John Milton’s “Sing Heav’nly Muse” and later still in W. B. Yeats’s “Irish poets, learn your trade, / Sing whatever is well made.” Although the poet no longer sang or directly faced an audience, the physical imagery of live vocal performance remained embedded in the metaphors poets used to describe their art. When Walt Whitman published a free verse poem in a volume produced by mechanical typography, he did not title it Book of Myself but rather Song of Myself. Whitman wanted to evoke the physical proximity of singer and audience: “I sing the body electric, / The armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth them.” Likewise Ezra Pound later called his Modernist epic The Cantos. His form was fundamentally visual and typographic. There are many passages in Pound’s poem that cannot satisfactorily be rendered aloud, but the author nonetheless presented the work as cantos, from the Italian word for song or chant. The title is not so much a description as a gesture of lineage and token of authenticity.
The notion of poetry as song can be extended to a metaphysical level, as Rainer Maria Rilke did in his Sonnets to Orpheus. “Gesang ist Dasein,” Rilke asserts, “Singing is being.” In Rilke’s view, the act of singing, by which he means the creation of real poetry in the primal Orphic sense, represents a different mode of existence from speech or silence. (Significantly, he appropriates the figure of Orpheus, the mythic first poet, whose songs could change reality.) One purpose of writing poetry, Rilke suggests, is to heighten or transform the author’s consciousness of his own existence. By extension, listening to song or poetry has a similar, if less intense, impact on the audience. Some readers may recognize Rilke’s phrase from another context—Lady Gaga has it tattooed on her arm. Poets and pop stars understand the power of song—both real and metaphorical—and its physical and emotional connection to the listener. Poetry speaks most effectively and inclusively (whether in free or formal verse) when it recognizes its connection—without apology—to its musical and ritualistic origins. No one watching a rock concert would claim that sung poetry makes nothing happen, though exactly what happens in the Dionysian exhilaration of the crowd remains more mysterious and various than often assumed.
Pop music provides useful perspective on Plato’s association of poetry with madness. There was something dangerously irrational in poetry that worried the philosopher. It wasn’t the semantic content but the visceral power of the sound and rhythm. Poetry compellingly communicates feelings that lie beyond or beneath rational discourse. The physicality of poetic speech separates it from the conceptual language of philosophy. Witnessing the moment in Greek civilization when written and oral cultures first came into conflict, Plato distrusted the emotional and intuitive nature of sung and chanted poetry. (Written poetry had hardly yet emerged.) He feared the irrational intoxication that Friedrich Nietzsche would later call Dionysian. As Robert Burton declared more bluntly in The Anatomy of Melancholy, “All poets are mad.” Plato responded to the dangers of poetry by suggesting—with notorious lack of success—that its practitioners be banished from the ideal state. (Contemporary thinkers have enjoyed far more success in suppressing poetry by sequestering it in the classroom.) Plato recognized poetry’s power to convey meaning in ways that did not foster conscious and reasonable response. What Plato noticed, in other words, was that poetry was a species of song. What he feared was its Dionysian enchantment.
Poetry withers and dies out when it leaves music, or at least imagined music.
The underlying musical nature of poetry is a primary reason why, as T. S. Eliot observed about Dante, “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” Poetic language expresses itself as a totality, not as a transparent vessel for conceptual content—just as music and dance express meaning in ways that are physical and sensory rather than analytical. Listen to the opening lines of the most widely anthologized poem in the English language, William Blake’s “The Tyger”:
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?
Great scholars have riddled out the complex mythology and ideology of these lines, which Blake reportedly sang to a tune now lost, but the poem itself has been loved and cherished by millions of readers who have no idea what it means in conceptual terms. Readers (or perhaps it would be better to say auditors) recognize that “The Tyger” is a “Song of Experience,” not a philosophy or theory of experience. Listeners love the poem as a verbal tune or magic spell that summons powerful images and awakens deep emotions. They respond with pleasure and exhilaration to the experience the poem affords. They also sense intuitively how the poem radiates a range of meanings not all of which they are personally able to comprehend. The magical aspect of poetry does not diminish the value of critical scrutiny. Scholarship has clarified the meaning of Blake’s poetry. The point is rather that an essential part of poetry’s power has little connection to conceptual understanding. Poetry proffers some mysteries that lie beyond paraphrase.
It is significant that the Latin word for poetry, carmen, is also the word the Romans used for a song, a magic spell, a religious incantation, or a prophecy–all verbal constructions whose auditory powers can produce a magical effect on the listener. Ancient cultures believed in the power of speech. To curse or bless someone had profound meaning. A spoken oath was binding. A spell or prophecy had potency. The term carmen still survives in modern English (via Norman French) as the word charm, and it still carries the multiple meanings of a magic spell, a spoken poem, and the power to enthrall. Even today charms survive in oral culture. Looking at a stormy sky, surely a few children still recite the spell:
some other day.
Or staring at the evening sky, they whisper to Venus, the evening star:
Star light, star bright,
First star I see tonight,
I wish I may, I wish I might
Have the wish I wish tonight.
A rational adult understands that neither the star nor the spell has any physical power to transform reality in accordance with the child’s wish. But the poet knows that by articulating a wish, by giving it tangible form, the child can potentially awaken the forces of imagination and desire that animate the future. As André Breton proposed, “The imaginary tends to become real.”
Poetry recognizes the mysterious relationship between dream and reality. In tribal societies, the shaman navigates the paths between the worlds of sleep and waking, and modern poetry still claims some power to connect the conscious and unconscious minds. The central aim of Surrealism was both to connect and to reconcile dream and reality—a vision that haunted much of twentieth century poetry. The challenge was how to join the dreaming and waking worlds. Surrealism’s reliance on imagery to create its spell was innovative. Traditionally, poetry had relied primarily on recurring patterns of sound. Edith Sitwell maintained that “Rhythm is one of the principal translators between dream and reality”—an observation now confirmed by cognitive science about the impact of shamanistic chanting on the human mind and body. As Arthur Koestler wrote, “The witch-doctor hypnotizes his audience with the monotonous rhythm of his drum; the poet merely provides the audience with the means to hypnotize itself.” Bringing dreams into waking consciousness is not an evasion of reality, but an illumination and exploration of reality. “In dreams,” W. B. Yeats observed, “begin responsibilities.”
The unpopularity of poetry at present . . . is in some ways an advantage both to poetry and to society as a whole.
Academic critics often dismiss the responses of average readers to poetry as naïve and vague, and there is some justification for this assumption. The reactions of most readers are undisciplined, haphazard, incoherent, and hopelessly subjective. Worse yet, amateurs often read only part of a poem because a word or image sends them stumbling backwards into memory or spinning forward into the imagination. But the amateur who reads poetry from love or curiosity does have at least one advantage over the trained specialist who reads it from professional obligation. Amateurs have not learned to shut off parts of their consciousness to focus on only the appropriate elements of a literary text. They respond to poems in the sloppy fullness of their humanity. Their emotions and memories emerge entangled with half-formed thoughts and physical sensations. As any thinking person can see, such subjectivity is an intellectual mess of the highest order. But aren’t average readers simply approaching poetry more or less the way human beings experience the world itself?
Life is experienced holistically with sensations pouring in through every physical and mental organ of perception. Art exists embodied in physical elements—especially meticulously calibrated aspects of sight and sound—which scholarly explication can illuminate but never fully replace. However conceptually incoherent and subjectively emotional, the amateur response to poetry comes closer to the larger human purposes of the art—which is to awaken, amplify, and refine the sense of being alive—than does critical commentary. The scholarly response may be accurate and insightful. The culture is enriched by specialized discourse about literary texts and traditions. But critical analysis remains deliberately outside the full experience of the poem, which is physical, emotional, subjective, and intuitive as well as intellectual.
Literature has many uses, not all of which occur in a classroom. Poetry would not be a universal human practice if it did not serve large and various purposes. People have sung or chanted poems to sow and reap, court reluctant lovers, march into battle, lull infants to sleep, and call the faithful to worship. Poetry gave humanity the words to get through life. Most of those once common occasions for poetry seem embarrassingly old-fashioned now that piped-in tunes and hand-held devices provide the background music for life’s journey. But even in its diminished state, poetry must still provide something valuable to ordinary lives, or it would have vanished utterly. Poems can be analyzed, but that sort of intellection is a secondary activity. There are more elemental reasons why the art exists and has been integrated into so many human places and situations. To have survived since the beginnings of the race, the art must still be useful in some basic way. It says everything about contemporary literary studies that there is neither consensus nor even much interest in this issue, which was considered foundational in earlier ages.
The purpose of rhythm, it has always seemed to me, is to prolong the moment of contemplation, the moment when we are both asleep and awake.
—William Butler Yeats
In the Western tradition, it has generally been assumed that the purpose of poetry is to delight, instruct, console, and commemorate. But it might be more accurate to say that poems instruct, console, and commemorate through the pleasures of enchantment. The power of poetry is to affect the emotions, touch the memory, and incite the imagination with unusual force. Mostly through the particular exhilaration and heightened sensitivity of rhythmic trance can poetry reach deeply enough into the psyche to have such impact. (How visual forms of prosody strive to achieve this mental state requires a separate inquiry.) When poetry loses its ability to enchant, it shrinks into what is just an elaborate form of argumentation. When verse casts its particular spell, it becomes the most evocative form of language. “Poetry,” writes Greg Orr, “is the rapture of rhythmical language.”
Poetry is a distinct category of language—a special way of speaking that invites and rewards a special way of listening. Poetry is often subtle and sometimes even occult in its meaning, but it is rarely shy about announcing its status as a separate kind of language. In oral culture, poetry needs to sound different from ordinary speech in the very form of its saying to earn its special attention and response. The purpose of sonic features, such as meter, rhyme, alliteration, is partially to make verse immediately distinguishable from speech or prose. “I came to poetry,” said Donald Hall, “for the sound it makes.” Poetry is not merely different in degree from ordinary language—more images, more metaphors, more rhythm—it differs fundamentally in how it communicates. All poetic technique exists to enchant—to create a mild trance state in the listener or reader in order to heighten attention, relax emotional defenses, and rouse our full psyche, so that we hear and respond to the language more deeply and intensely. Camille Paglia speculates that “poetry subliminally manipulates the body and triggers its nerve impulses, the muscle tremors of sensation and speech.” To borrow Franz Kafka’s more violent metaphor about literature in general, poetry is “the axe to break the frozen sea within us.”
<span class=”pullquote-left”>Poetry offers a way of understanding and expressing existence that is fundamentally different from conceptual thought. </span>The aim of poetry—in this primal and primary sense as enchantment—is to awaken us to a fuller sense of our own humanity in both its social and individual aspects. Poetry offers a way of understanding and expressing existence that is fundamentally different from conceptual thought. As Jacques Maritain observed, “poetry is not philosophy for the feeble-minded.” It is a different mode of knowing and communicating the world. There are many truths about existence that we can only express authentically as a song or a story. Conceptual language, which is the necessary medium of the critic and scholar, primarily addresses the intellect. It is analytical, which is to say, it takes things apart, as the Greek root of the word ana-lyein, to unloosen, suggests. Conceptual discourse abstracts language from the particular to the general. Poetic language, however, is holistic and experiential. Poetry simultaneously addresses our intellect and our physical senses, our emotions, imagination, intuition, and memory without asking us to divide them. The text may be frozen on the page for easy visual inspection and analysis, but the poetic experience itself is temporal, individual, and mostly invisible. As Wallace Stevens wrote, “Poetry is a pheasant disappearing in the brush.”
Why poetry is in school more than it seems to be outside in the world, the children haven’t been told. They must wonder.
This consideration of poetry’s formal nature and human purposes presents a paradox. If poetry is the most ancient and primal art, if it is a universal human activity, if it uses the rhythmic power of music to speak to us in deep and mysterious ways, if the art is a sort of secular magic that heightens the sense of our own humanity, then why is poetry so unpopular? Why has poetry, as so many instructors complain, become so hard to teach? Why is poetry disappearing from the curriculum at every level of education? Why has poetry gradually vanished from public discourse and the media? And, finally, why has all this happened—at least in most of Western Europe and North America—despite huge, ongoing investments from governmental, academic, and philanthropic institutions to support the creation, teaching, publishing, discussion, promotion, and preservation of poetry?
There are, of course, many reasons for poetry’s retreat from cultural life, not the least of which is the proliferation of new technologies for information and entertainment, including media that have usurped the basic modes of song and storytelling that have traditionally been the mission of literature. But there have also been intellectual and education trends that have stunted poetry’s appeal and popularity. Poetry has always played a significant role in education. It has been used for millennia at every level of instruction. In cultures as different as classical China, Imperial Rome, and Elizabethan England, poetry served as the central subject matter of the curriculum. The schools attended by Tu Fu, St. Augustine, and William Shakespeare, for example, used verse texts and even metrical composition in many subjects.
Until quite recently poetry was taught badly—at least according to current academic standards. Poetry was used to teach grammar, elocution, and rhetoric. It was employed to convey history, both secular and sacred, often to instill patriotic sentiment and religious morality. Poetry was chanted in chorus at female academies. It was copied to teach cursive handwriting and calligraphy. It was memorized by wayward schoolboys as punishment. It was recited by children at public events and family gatherings. Being able to write verse was considered a social grace in both domestic and public life. Going to school meant becoming well versed.
<span class=”pullquote-left”>They may not have admired the same texts as Ezra Pound did, and they didn’t discuss verse in the manner of T. S. Eliot, but poetry played a part in their personal formation and continued to shape their imagination.</span>For thousands of years, poetry was taught badly, and consequently it was immensely popular. Readers loved the vast and variable medium of verse. It wasn’t a forbidding category of high literary art; it was the most pleasurable way in which words could be put together. Poetry was used in schools at least in part because it was considered more engaging than prose for children. Even in the late nineteenth century, poets such as Longfellow, Byron, Tennyson, and Kipling were international figures who outsold their prose competitors. But poetry’s existence on the pages of books, even the best-selling books, represented only a fraction of its cultural presence. Poetry flourished at the borders between print and oral culture—places where single poems could be read and then shared aloud. Poetry was read most widely in newspapers, magazines, almanacs, and popular anthologies. A poet could become internationally famous through the publication of a single poem, as in the case of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.” Edwin Markham’s poem “The Man with the Hoe,” which dramatized the oppression of labor, was quickly reprinted in 10,000 newspapers and magazines. Laurence Binyon’s “For the Fallen” gave solace to millions of mourners for the dead of World War I. Critics may denigrate these poems, but the magnitude of their reception is indisputable. Poetry permeated the culture at all levels. It was read and recited by people of all classes. They may not have admired the same texts as Ezra Pound did, and they didn’t discuss verse in the manner of T. S. Eliot, but poetry played a part in their personal formation and continued to shape their imagination.
What happened? I suspect that one thing that hurt poetry was being too well taught. This claim may initially seem preposterous, but grant a moment to pursue a plausible line of argument. As the twentieth century progressed, some of the most brilliant minds in the history of English-language letters began to wrestle with the early Modernist classics. (There were parallel critical vanguards in Russia, Germany, France, and other countries.) Literary intellectuals noticed some of the ways poetic language operated, especially in the most compressed, allusive and challenging texts—works such as Eliot’s The Waste Land or Pound’s Cantos. Gradually they developed interpretive methods as subtle as the texts they analyzed. They also disliked certain aspects of their own education in poetry, especially the sentimentality and moralizing of their Victorian-era instructors. These critics strived to create a more objective, rational, and coherent way to understand and teach poetry.
In the United States, this intellectual vanguard included such critics as R. P. Blackmur, Allen Tate, Kenneth Burke, Cleanth Brooks, John Crowe Ransom, and Yvor Winters. These writers developed brilliant methods of analyzing poetry as poetry, according to the intrinsic nature of the art itself, stripped of all the extrinsic factors. They brought analytical rigor, theoretical organization, and philosophical detachment to what had mostly been an inconsistent and casual—indeed amateurish—field. Their techniques differed so radically from traditional pedagogy that in America they were called “The New Critics.”
The work of these critics represented a great moment in American intellectual history. Yet their immense success also had an enduring negative impact on the popularity of poetry. This impact was felt primarily in two ways. First, the New Critics and their successors changed the way poetry was taught—first in universities and then at lower levels of education. The intellectual revolution of one generation hardened into the pedagogic dogma of another. Classroom instruction gradually narrowed to a few types of textual analysis, increasingly taught to students with limited experiential knowledge of poetry. Coursework focused on critical dissection and conceptual paraphrase of printed texts. Academic success depended on the student’s ability to replicate these forms of analysis in written work. Needless to say, this process represented a radical departure from the pedagogy of half a century earlier, which had been more eclectic, performative, and auditory. The new methods may have produced more sophisticated teachers of poetry, but they reduced the appeal of the art to most students. Ironically, the emphasis on textual analysis and critical theory also had a parochial quality. In its attempt to train everyone in the specialized techniques of professional academic study, it mistook the basic goal of literature courses in the general curriculum. The purpose of literary education is not to produce more professors; its goal is to develop capable and complete human beings.
The second impact was on the profession itself. The success of the New Critics, all of whom were poet-professors, inspired the next three generations of American scholars to focus on espousing, or at the very least consciously employing, critical methods as their means of professional advancement. Every decade brought a new wave of critical schools and techniques, eventually culminating in mostly theoretical approaches to literature. Each new method, however brilliant–and these methods often were quite brilliant–usually became more remote from the actual holistic, intuitive experience of poetry. As criticism and theory became a mandatory part of the curriculum, their presence reduced the number of classes students took in imaginative literature. (Memorization had already vanished from the classroom.) Trained in this system, students mastered complex strategies for analyzing an art in which they had little direct experience and less appetite. Theoretical fluency replaced wide reading of primary sources. Poems became texts to be deconstructed into power strategies and signifiers. Inexplicably, enrollment in literature courses began to decline.
Please understand I am not making an argument against the New Criticism, critical methods, or literary theory as intellectual disciplines. I am myself a critic and take great pride in that side of my writing. My argument concerns what happened to several generations of students, especially those who were not literature majors, when their classroom experience of poetry consisted mostly of technical analysis without being supplemented by other approaches to the art. For most students, writing a critical paper does not inspire the same lifelong affection for poetry that memorization and recitation fosters. When analytical instruction replaces the physicality, subjectivity, and emotionality of performance, most students fail to make a meaningful connection with poetry. So abstracted and intellectualized, poetry becomes disembodied into poetics—a noble subject but never a popular one. As the audience for poetry continues to contract, there will come a tipping point—perhaps it has already arrived—when the majority of adult readers are academic professionals or graduate students training for those professions. What is the future of an art when the majority of its audience must be paid to participate?
No one intended the decimation of poetry’s audience or the alienation of the common reader. Like most environmental messes, those things happened as accidental by-products of an otherwise positive project. The rise of analytical criticism initially seemed an entirely reasonable and beneficial development. The time seems overdue to assess its broader impact on the art. These are unpopular ideas to offer a literary culture now made up mostly of teachers and professors. But if our deeper loyalty belongs to literature itself, rather than to our professional practices, we need to consider these disturbing trends. As Oscar Wilde once remarked, “There are two ways of disliking art. One is to dislike it. The other, to like it rationally.”
When a man fell into his anecdotage, it was a sign for him to retire from the world.
I generally distrust personal anecdote in literary criticism. It seems so subjective, so limited, indeed, so anecdotal. But sometimes stories can convey complicated information more easily than abstract argumentation. Let me illustrate my thesis with four short personal anecdotes. First, let me recall my childhood in Los Angeles. I was raised among working-class people, none of whom had any higher education and many of whom were born speaking Spanish or Italian. Yet most of them liked poetry—not exclusively or excessively, of course—but they considered it one of life’s many pleasures. They knew poems by heart and quoted them unselfconsciously. They also liked hearing poetry recited. These were generally people who were otherwise suspicious of intellectual things. But they quoted these poems, nearly all of which they had learned in school, with obvious pleasure and pride. Their education, however limited, had instilled an appetite and appreciation for poetry.
My second anecdote comes from my own literary education. By the time I entered high school in 1965, California teenagers were taught poetry mostly as close reading of a visual text on a printed page. We were never asked to memorize a poem. Indeed, we rarely even read complete poems aloud in class. Instead, we read and analyzed poems, line by line, word by word, as clusters of meaning on the page. The act of “reading a poem,” at least in class, was to paraphrase and then comment on these small verbal clusters.
A few years later at Stanford, I saw close reading and other critical methods applied with fundamentalist zeal. If a student dared to make some personal remark or subjective observation about a poem, he or she was immediately corrected. Such comments were considered embarrassing amateur blunders. The only proper reading of poems was “objective,” which is to say abstract, analytical, and disinterested consideration of the printed text. That approach was often revelatory, but it was seldom rapturous. It is interesting to note the academic use of the term “reading” to encompass both the experience and analysis of a poem as a single action (just as the earlier conception of “singing” had combined musical and verbal creation as a single action).
My third anecdotal observation occurs twenty years later when I had my first stint as a teacher. I led a graduate seminar on poetic form at Sarah Lawrence College, an elite private institution just outside of New York City. The course had about 15 graduate students, all from good colleges, all studying for academic careers in literature. (Most of them wanted to become teachers of creative writing.) A few weeks into the course we arrived at the sonnet, and I asked each student to memorize one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. This assignment met with initial resistance and much anxiety from the students. Not one of them, I learned, had ever been required, at any point in their education, to memorize a poem. They also did not understand why it made sense for a student, even a graduate student of literature, to memorize a poem. Heartlessly, I insisted that they fulfill the assignment.
The next week when they recited their chosen sonnets, I was generally pleased by their accuracy. What distressed me was their delivery. Their awkward utterances hardly sounded like spoken English. It became obvious that they had memorized the poems on the wrong side of their brain—in visual memory, not auditory memory. When they recited, they seemed to be reading some internal visual text aloud. One student later said something that astonished me. She claimed she had never thought of poetry as something to be spoken aloud, only something to be read silently on the page.
Taken together, these three anecdotes suggest the changes that occurred across three generations—from the time of my parents to that of my students. At least in America, the literary curriculum had gone from a system in which students memorized and recited poetry to one which was so visual and analytical that it excluded memorization and performance.
My fourth and final anecdote is more positive, and it suggests that the literary culture is again changing. When I became Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts in 2003, I hoped to make arts education a primary objective of federal cultural policy. American students needed to experience the arts as a natural part of their schooling. This was an immensely complicated and expensive goal, fraught with legislative, bureaucratic, operational, and financial challenges. We decided to start with a program that could be executed quickly on a large scale without a huge investment. What we conceived was a national poetry recitation contest for high school students that would begin at a class level, and then move on to school, local, state, and national competitions. We successfully tested the idea in Chicago and Washington D.C., but when the agency tried to expand it, the arts education officials in the 50 states initially refused to adopt it.
The state arts education experts had four major objections to the program. First, they believed that students hated poetry. (Am I wrong to suspect that this assumption suggests that the experts themselves disliked poetry?) Second, they maintained that memorization was repressive and stifled creativity. Some of them added that memorization victimized minority students since standard English was not spoken in their homes. Third, they unanimously felt that competition had no place in the arts. There should be no winners or losers. In arts education, everyone should win. Finally, there was a general feeling among the educators that poetry was too intellectual for the average student. It was not an accessible art. In 2003 this dismal diagnosis was what arts education experts thought of poetry. Is it any wonder they didn’t want the program?
It took a great deal of politicking, but eventually the NEA got all 50 states to try the competition for one year. We called the program Poetry Out Loud, and the Poetry Foundation of Chicago agreed to help fund it. There was a consensus among the state arts experts that the program would fail. We agreed that if it did not meet expectations, the NEA would give the state arts agencies the program’s modest budget to do other things in the following year.
What happened, however, was that Poetry Out Loud was a huge and immediate success. Even though the program was poorly funded and not fully available in most states, Poetry Out Loud soon had hundreds of thousands of American teenagers memorizing and reciting poems in thousands of competitions at a local, state, and national level. Students actually liked poetry once they took it off the page. Growing up in an entertainment culture dominated by hip hop, these teenagers felt more comfortable hearing and reciting poetry than reading and analyzing it. Sound and performance was the right entry point into the art. The competitive format also added a special energy to the recitals. At these competitions, the students not only performed their poems, they also heard the poems recited by others. The performers and the audience were saturated in poetry sometimes for hours. The administrators and arts consultants were openly astonished by the program’s popularity. Meanwhile the teachers were surprised that the best performers were usually not the best academic students. The winners were often problem kids—the class clown, the sullen athlete, the previously silent outsider. Moreover teachers noted that the energy of the competition spilled over into the rest of the course work, as students developed an increased comfort and command of literary language.
At the national finals I noticed another surprising thing. Year after year about half of the winners were first-generation Americans, kids from immigrant families who had been raised speaking another language until they entered school—Chinese, Arabic, Spanish, Portuguese, Hindi, Farsi, Creole, Russian. These were exactly the students for whom literature classes are usually most difficult. But memorizing and reciting poetry provided them with powerful means of assimilating and mastering English. Poetry proved educationally effective, just as it had for thousands of years when it was used to teach grammar, elocution, and rhetoric. This experience confirmed my conviction that there is actually a widespread appetite for poetry—if the art can be made accessible and engaging. It also demonstrated the power of performative knowledge in humanistic education. Poetry Out Loud has just celebrated its tenth anniversary. Two and a half million students have participated in the competition.
Poets don’t seem to have fun anymore.
No one has perfected a method to restore poetry’s place in public culture. It is unlikely that the art will ever return to the central position it once held. But is it unreasonable to hope that poetry can acquire some additional vitality or that the audience can be increased? Isn’t it silly to assume that current practices represent the best way to sustain the art into the future? There are surely opportunities for innovation, renovation, and improvement. Literary culture needs new ideas. Let me offer only two suggestions, both focused on poetry’s role in education, that might broaden the art’s audience. My aim isn’t to reject textual analysis, critical methodology, or literary theory as necessary elements of a literary education. These are powerful and legitimate ways of apprehending literature. My point is simply that they would work better if they were combined with other methods.
My first suggestion is to recognize the power of enchantment in teaching poetry. The best way to engage the imagination of students is to augment critical analysis with experiential, performative, and creative forms of knowledge. Memorization and recitation should be restored as foundational techniques. Bringing students the pleasure and exhilaration of poetry is necessary before the analysis of it has much relevance to them. There should also be creative forms of engagement such as writing imitations, responses, and parodies, or setting poems to music. Students need to have more experience listening to poems aloud, even though that takes up finite classroom time. Reading poetry silently on the page (or aloud in little snatches) as part of textual explication is an incomplete introduction to the art. It is drab and bloodless like viewing the masterpieces of Cezanne and Van Gogh in black and white reproductions. One sees some wonderful things but also misses something essential. Like song or dance, poetry needs to be experienced in performance before it can be fully understood.
Second, critics, scholars, and teachers need to recognize and respect non-conceptual forms of knowledge, which are fundamental to all literature, especially poetry. There are physical and sensory modes of meaning embedded in the rhythms, images, and verbal texture of verse, as well as emotional and intuitive movements in the structure of poetry. These are often difficult elements to summarize in abstract terms, but their resistance to conceptual paraphrase reflects the limitations of criticism not the limits of art. If we ignore or marginalize the physical and sensory power of verse, we lose precisely the magic that connects poetry to most people and thereby restrict its appeal.
Teachers and writers share a responsibility to create the next generation of readers. We need to create and cultivate in our classrooms a dialectic of intellect and intuition, of mental attention and sensory engagement. In poetry, intellectuality without physicality becomes dull and barren, just as intuition untethered by intellect quickly becomes sloppy and subjective. We need to augment methodology with magic. Blake asked, “What the hand, dare seize the fire?” The answer is, of course, our hands—the skilled hands of teachers and writers. We’ve touched the fire of imagination, art, and language. We need to pass that fire on to the future. Why should we settle for a vision of literary education that does any less?
First published in 20th anniversary issue of The Dark Horse (Summer 2015)