Tuesday, April 16, 2024 | Shawwal 6, 1445 H
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Poetry and literature: Not a waste of time!

Is the poetry and literature taught in schools and higher education has any genuine relevance to the lives of the students!
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I’m often asked, from my educational perspective, whether the poetry and literature taught in schools and higher education has any genuine relevance to the lives of the students. In other words, “What good does it do them when they leave school?”

This, and its ilk, are fair questions. I guess the romantics among us may, when romantically inspired, borrow from Romeo and Juliet to make an impression, even though Shakespeare himself saw the lover’s story as more of a tragedy than a romance, writing, “For never was a story of more woe than that of Juliet and her Romeo. Yet, it is the romance that lingers with us, aware of the tragedy, but knowing the romance. We seek to impress, or dream of hearing the immortal, “Soft, what light through yonder window breaks. It is the East, and (use any name here) is the Sun.” Who could not be swayed? And followed up with... “That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet,” and “parting is such sweet sorrow...” is the perfect note upon which to leave a promise for another day.

Romance or humdrum? An informal discussion among colleagues revealed that we are so romantic at heart, with, to borrow some brief sentiment from Renee Zelwegger, one woman uttered, “Ooooh, you had me at soft.” With a chuckle we agreed that these kind of lines will be immortal, but the question still stands, because while the best among us may be inspired by ‘shaky Bill,’ most of us would probably stand or fall on our own imaginations.

Academia would have us convinced that historical literature has immense value, with teaching organisations advocating that ‘understanding and respecting alternative perspectives and viewpoints, in our divisive age,’ is a necessary life skill, which could be debated ad infinitum, however, what can be more easily supported is their contention that literature ‘enables students to see endless possibilities of linguistically shaped expression and meaning.’ There is though, in that phrase, no mention of the complexity of punctuation, particularly in poetry, where the rules of punctuation are so often ‘misplaced’ in a preference for radical expression, or shock factor.

William Blake, in ‘A Poison Tree,’ sends a message we should all understand about conflict, and to my mind that is something that all young scholars should all see, read, discuss, and understand, to prepare them for the ups and downs of workplace relationships. He wrote: ‘I was angry with my friend. I told my wrath, my wrath did end. I was angry with my foe: I told it not, my wrath did grow.” Now there’s a life lesson right there. If you have a problem, or an issue, a ‘wrath’ with anyone. Talk it through. Don’t leave anything that worries you unsaid, and resolve, or ‘end’ it. In studying that poetry, you will understand the poet’s intent, and it will remain with you, purely because it does have value.

I don’t always know how much my students are getting from their literature, and more specifically from their poetry, but what I can say, with certainty, is that their ability to present themselves, their opinions, and their beliefs, develops exponentially with their ability to develop their own opinions on the literature, its purpose, and its integrity. I believe they draw confidence from learning that their opinion about an authors or poets intent, can be as important to them as Pythagoras, or the Periodic Table of Elements. The truth, and the beauty of literature, is memorable, enduring, and empowering. It’s universal, and as Rumi writes, “Not just her laugh and her face are lovely; Her anger, her moods, and her harsh words are too. Like it or not, she demands my life. Who cares for life? Her demands are lovely too.”

In this gorgeous few words are beauty, anger, love, laughter, joy, pain, and a million other emotions that the students can unpack for themselves, and in this, I can truly see redemption for poetry and literature in education.

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