Thursday, 28 November 2013

So What IS Poetry about?

My son recently completed the poetry section of his Year 10 (Grade 9 in the US) English course and as he described to me exactly what he was doing, I nearly recoiled in horror. My first thought was "Great, another generation of poetry-haters!" He wasn't in fact learning to enjoy poetry- he was learning to translate it. He was taking poetry by New Zealand war poets (a strange choice I thought for beginning students- a bit like playing Wagner for someone just getting into classical music- enough to scare them away forever!) and literally translating it line for line into "what the poet was trying to say."

Teaching poetry in this way is like teaching art or music appreciation by focusing only on what the artist or composer 'means' with each brushstroke or measure. Poetry is first and foremost an aural experience- or or related to the sense of hearing. How does the poem sound? Is it pleasurable to read aloud?

Like paintings or pieces of music there is also an emotional component that needs to be acknowledged- what is the tone of the poem, how does it make you feel? 

Poetry is also a medium that depends heavily on metaphor- this is something, but not exactly like that- and if the metaphors are working well, the reader can gain pleasure from the poem even if the overall meaning is obscure.

So the next time you read poetry (which I hope will be soon and often) don't immediately ponder what the poet is trying to say- read it aloud a few times, let it wash over you the way you might a piece of artwork or music, look for the images and metaphors- do they work? If the poem leaves you with some bit of wisdom or understanding you lacked before you read it, so much the better. Poetry though is about observation, asking you to see or feel things in a new way, much the way paintings or beautiful passages of music can be enjoyed without knowing the artist or composers meaning beneath the surface.

1 comment:

Drew said...

I wish you were my English teacher Uncle Arthur! I have always loved the abstract aspect of poetry that allows every individual to take a unique meaning away from a poet's words. I understand why I was taught to "translate" poetry, but like you said, learning that way disregards a poet's true artistry. Love the blog so far!