Do kids learn much poetry in school these days? After chatting with recent high school graduates, I am increasingly doubtful. Some readers may well ask if this ancient genre really matters. They are not alone. A few years ago Dana Gioia -- a New York City businessman and an accomplished poet -- wrote a much-admired essay titled Can Poetry Really Matter? Gioia sure thought it mattered, and I agree. Poetry has played a key role in civilization for almost 4,000 years; why neglect it now?
As the plane bearing my family landed recently from an educational trip to England, an almost-forgotten verse ran through my mind: Breathes there a man with soul so dead who never to himself hath said this is my own, my native land, Whose heart hath never within him burned when home his footsteps he hath turned from wandering on a foreign strand.
The last time I had recalled The Lay of the Last Minstrel -- learned in the eighth grade at the hands of a Miss Jacobson -- was at a similar moment years ago when I arrived back in the U.S. from military service in Europe. I have to give Sir Walter Scott his due: He has just the right words for a homecoming.
I was more than pleasantly surprised last week when my seventh-grader came home from Miller Middle School with a poetry assignment. I was even more astonished when she showed up a few days later with a poetry-related project from Girl Scouts.
Im not one of those guys who sit around mourning the so-called good old days, but I have to confess that a twinge of nostalgia hits me when I pick up one of my mothers old high school literature books. I am amazed at what the kids were being asked to read in that era, and especially the poetry selections.
While the old textbooks dont stand up to the demands for diversity in gender and ethnicity that we would insist upon today, the difficulty of some of the 1922 selections would more than pass muster in todays critical reading discussions. A sampling of the authors represented in just the ninth-grade volume: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Southey, Lord Byron, John Greenleaf Whittier, Harriet Monroe, Robert Browning, Rudyard Kipling, Robert Burns, William Wordsworth, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Amy Lowell, and, yes, Sidney Lanier.
For reasons not fully understood, most of the students I encounter today have not had the benefit of such a background. Not only do students study less poetry, but popular magazines are far less likely to include poems in their pages. When Gioia spoke in Macon, he observed that never before has it been so possible to earn a living as a poet, and yet never before has poetry had so little place in everyday life.
I wondered then and I wonder now, at a time when we are so concerned about students ability to write well, how could something that so clearly builds facility with words not be seen as crucial to the teaching of both literature and writing? As Gioia puts it, poetry is about the ability to shape, appreciate and understand the power of language.
Some observers blame what they call the academicization of poetry for its decline among regular folks. Such intellectual trends as post-modernism, theory, semiotics, identity politics and other movements may have mistakenly given many non-academics the notion that literature today is beyond their grasp.
While poetry today surely has a place in academe, it has a still larger place in daily life. Like music, it says things that can be expressed no other way. The onus is on those who agree to start speaking out. To paraphrase a former colleague, poetry is too important to be left to the professional educators.
Here in our community, the Friends of Tattnall Square Park are taking a small step in the right direction by placing various poems on the handsome new waste receptacles. Yes, a small step, but Dana Gioia would applaud. If I may paraphrase yet another famous quote, its better to light even one candle than to sit and curse the darkness.
Larry Fennelly is an arts columnist for The Telegraph. He can be reached at email@example.com