Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Poetry Feeds the Soul

A friend and I were discussing over lunch the other day the incredible literary quality of letters written by Civil War soldiers. The writers were often young men in their teens or early twenties and, as my friend said, reading them is like reading Shakespeare. Not every young man in the middle of the 19th century could write like this, of course, and doubtless many of them were illiterate, but the point is that so many of them could and so few today could.

There's no gainsaying that we've lost something of value when we lost the ability, and the inclination, to write so eloquently. A man or woman who writes with elegance is an artist, a poet. A culture in which ordinary people are artists or poets of this sort is deeply enriched thereby.

Perhaps one reason we so rarely see contemporary writing of this sort is because we no longer think this way and the reason we no longer think this way is, in part, because we've abandoned poetry in our schools. Suzanne Fields elaborates on this in a recent column. She writes:
The other day a teacher of a ninth-grade English class at an elite private school in the nation’s capital asked students who had transferred from public schools to list the poets they had studied. Several hands shot up, eager to tell. When one of them said “Langston Hughes,” the hands quickly went down. Langston Hughes, a distinguished black poet well worth reading, was nevertheless the only poet they knew.

Gone from their classrooms were the old staples, Samuel Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Emily Dickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop for Death,” Walt Whitman’s “My Captain, My Captain.” These poems once were essential parts of a child’s poetic repertoire, learned before high school. Many public school students are cheated now by the politically correct, deprived of a sense of the sweep of poetry power that once made up the common cultural heritage.

Kids don’t get to dance with the daffodils, grow thirsty with “water, water, everywhere, and not a drop to drink,” and read “quoth the raven evermore.” They never know the playful fun of teasing someone with big feet as having “longfellows.”

Help may be on the way. Last week, James Billington, the librarian of Congress, named Charles Wright as the new poet laureate of the United States, a man who thinks poetry leads to thoughtful reflection, a scarce commodity indeed in contemporary Washington. Mr. Wright, a soft-spoken Southerner who keeps a lock of Robert E. Lee’s hair on his desk, is apolitical in a political world. He finds “the true purpose of poetry to be a contemplation of the divine — however you find it, or don’t find it.”

Such refreshing insights could usher in a new appreciation of language, reviving an interest in the importance of the precise word in the right place at the right time for those addicted to the idiomatic shortcuts of texting. This is particularly good news for conservatives, since the use of precise language conserves what’s left of the best in a debased media culture where talk drives out the written word.
There's more to her excellent column. Please read the whole thing. She closes with this thought:
“Without poetry, there’s just talk,” Mr. Wright, the new poet laureate, tells The Paris Review. “Talk is cheap and proves nothing. Poetry is dear and difficult to come by. But it poles us across the river and puts music in our ears. It moves us to contemplation.” Are we listening?
To the extent that students are no longer required to read and memorize great poetry (and other literature, for that matter) we impoverish them and us. It's as if we deliberately have extinguished a big part of our individual and collective soul.