At The Heights, boys write their own poetry and perform famous poems from the past. Having taught Literature here for the past six years, I can confidently assert that poetry has a pride of place in our Literature curriculum. I give you my thoughts on the why and the how of teaching poetry.
Our culture has no idea what poetry is anymore. We have watered the definition down to include everything from saccharine Hallmark cards to misogynistic and violent rap. Poetry is the exquisite expression of timeless truths, compelling stories, or enthralling beauty–almost always set in verse. It is the first literature in almost every culture, and is often memorized for generations before it is ever written down. This is the poetry that must be sought out by all ages, learned by heart, ruminated on, and ultimately enjoyed because of the contemplation it encourages in all of us.
The goal of all art is to delight and to teach. Poetry is no different but is the highest form of verbal and literary art because it delights and teaches with every tool available to the faculty of language. We teach the boys that there is a math and music to meter, identifying iambs and trochees, hexameters and couplets. Poetry employs not only meter but different literary devices, called schemes and tropes, to augment the impression on the memory. The schemes are arrangements of words that don’t change the meaning—like alliteration, rhyme, assonance, and consonance. All of these schemes are arrangements of language that heighten the beauty and impact without departing from the literal meaning of the words presented. Tropes, however, alter the meaning of the word and are the literary devices we’re more familiar with—metaphor, simile, personification, and metonymy are just a few examples. We teachers give our boys this terminology so that they can confidently dissect the parts of a poem: meter, meaning, and memory.
This combination of literal and figurative allows poetry to speak to the whole person. Poetry should delight the mathematician and the scientist no less than it does the artist and the dreamer. In reality the mathematician and the artist are one in the poet. The poet must know and count meter and patterns of language. Then, he must take his words, and, unlike the scientist, pack them with as much meaning as possible, until they are bursting with connections between thoughts that show us the real unity of Truth. The scientist will use his language more precisely than the poet, but the poet delights in using language more fully. H2O: pure, distilled water, has its place in the laboratory, and as a symbol is clear and unequivocal. The words pouring out of the poet’s pen, though, contain allusions and images as he focuses our senses of sight and sound on the limpid liquid or the ripples lapping the river-bank.
Our Natural History curriculum instills two kinds of observation in the boys, the observation of the animals playing, living, and eating in their natural habitat, as well as understanding them when they are stuffed in Toad Hall, identifying the parts of an owl’s wings and feathers, or understanding the snake’s skin under close observation. Our boys need to know the terminology of a poem that gives them the confidence to recognize its parts. A boy learning poetry should know how to enjoy a living poem, one he can perform or hear with pleasure and understanding. He should be equally comfortable in labelling and understanding how the parts of the poem interact, confidently identifying iambs and trochees, hearing and feeling the differences between tetrameter, pentameter, and hexameter, and even trying his hand at crystallizing his own thoughts into verse, aiming for both clarity, complexity, and beauty.
This is why we have the competition of the Bard. This is why poetry is central to our Literature courses from 3rd grade all the way through 8th grade. This is why one member of our department will often send a poem out to the whole faculty and invite those willing to beer and conversation about one or two poems on a Friday afternoon. That is why several of our faculty write poetry themselves. This highest expression of our language keeps us grounded in the greatest works of the past, while also striving to choose the best words to encapsulate timeless ideas and speak to our own generation. Poetry must never be lost, for with it will go the highest aspirations of our culture. We must train our boys’ taste to love good poetry and abjure mawkish rhyme of Hallmark or rhythmically throbbing rejection of authority and tradition. Rather, we must hold up for ourselves and our students the great poetry of the past, encouraging them to internalize it and ultimately incarnate its greatest ideas. Not all of us will be poets in the end—even I am more in the camp of admirer than practitioner of this art—but we can never lose sight of the importance of this art and all art in the formation of young men. Join us on the podcast as we occasionally bring a great poem to your attention and encourage you to contemplate with us.