From the fear of poetry

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“I to hate it,” a student confessed to me last week after revising an essay on Sylvia Plath. The only thing she was sure of was that she had to use the word ‘dissonance’.

“A lot of teachers don’t feel comfortable teaching poetry or don’t have the skills,” a retired literature teacher told me.

Or perhaps, like their students, they were infected with fear. It’s not to blame the teachers. As is the case in universities, their time is increasingly spent on administration instead of looking after their subjects and their students. The truth is that teaching poetry requires a special set of skills and, preferably, a genuine love for the lyrical language.

“The thing is, we don’t actually speak in prose, but rather in short bursts of utterances,” Magee explains. “We speak in something much more like lines of poetry. This makes the verse both easier to understand and easier to generate – but again, only for those who aren’t afraid of it.

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Perhaps part of my passion for reading, writing and teaching poetry comes from my own first experience at Sylvania Elementary School when the class read poems about the sea and then had to write some. a. I still have this poem because it was sent to the principal to receive his special postmark. How many elementary school principals these days would have time to read student poetry, let alone give them a principal’s award? And yet, that little nod of approval meant so much to me, giving me confidence in the skill from which I would eventually derive my meager, but fulfilling, livelihood.

As a teenager, my first literary partnership, with school friend Kathy Lette, began by co-writing nonsense poetry just for fun. This initial playful collaboration turned into a co-author of puberty blues (which began as a collection of short stories, a close relative of poetry.)

Acclaimed children’s author Ursula Dubosarsky, the 2020-21 Australian Children’s Laureate, explains that although memorizing poems is now often considered an educational crime, “the poems I have been more or less forced to learn by heart at school and which are inscribed in my mind and even more deeply, including that of Kenneth Slessor Out of timeare perhaps the greatest lasting gifts of my entire school upbringing.

For the past 10 years, Associate Professor Paul Magee has made rote recitals a mandatory part of passing his creative writing unit at the University of Canberra.

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“Having a poem by heart,” says Magee, “is very much in the nature of a bonus because, once you’ve done that work, the lines come back at all sorts of times, including recurring in as real-world advice for what to do or how to think differently, in various unexpected moments.

Rather than treating poetry as an optional extra, ideally it should be central to the subject of English – in primary, secondary and higher education. Without it, we deprive our children of a linguistic wealth that will serve them for the rest of their lives.

Gabrielle Carey is a non-fiction writer and essayist. Paul Magee is the author of The Suddenness and Composition of Poetic Thought.


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