More on Poetry

As some readers may know, my wife is a professional singer who is also a professor of voice and opera.  Among her many duties is that of teaching aspiring classical singers diction and literature.  One notable type of song literature required of these students is that of “art song,” and a significant percentage of art song consists of poetry set to music by composers.  Various forms of art song, if called by different names, have been composed in many languages, although classical singers usually begin by learning art songs in English, French, German, and Italian.

Earlier this semester, my wife was beginning the section on American and English art song, and out of a class of fifteen students, she found that what they had read in high school appeared to be limited to a bit of Chaucer and Shakespeare, along with Emily Dickinson, and perhaps T.S. Eliot.

None of the students had learned any poetry by such greats as John Milton, William Blake, Shelley, Byron, Keats, Yeats, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Christina Rosetti., Robert Louis Stevenson, Thomas Hardy, W.H. Auden, A.E. Housman, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Amy Lowell. In fact, none of them even appeared to have read Robert Frost. Moreover, none of them could actually read verse, except in a halting monotone.  This lack of background in poetry puts them at a severe disadvantage, because these are the poets whose words have been put to music in art song and even in choral works.

These were not disadvantaged students. They came out of high school with good grades and good standardized test scores.  Yet they know essentially very little about the historical written arts of their own native language.  In turn, this lack shows up in their narrowness of word usage, metaphor, and general weakness in both oral and written expression. Whether it’s related or not, it does appear that there’s also a correlation between the loss of  solid English instruction and the growth of such phrases as “you know”; “I mean”; “like…dude”; and scores of other meaningless phrases used to cover lack of even semi-precise expressiveness.

Bring back the great old poets… all of them.

11 thoughts on “More on Poetry”

  1. Grant Edmunds says:

    As a High School student that is being home schooled and having had very little formal english teaching, almost none of it in the subject of poetry, how do you suggest I remedy my illiteracy? In other words, do you have any suggestions for learning poetry, on my own, aside from simply copying down your list of poets, looking up their works and reading them?

  2. Actually I’d start in by reading an anthology of poets. I’d suggest Immortal Poems of the English Language, edited by Oscar Williams. It’s a standard text for English and is available new in paperback for something like $8.99 new, and you might even be able to pick it up used for less.

  3. Vince T says:

    Four words, “No Child Left Behind.”

  4. Richard Hamilton says:

    I went to high school in the mid-70s, at a reasonably
    good (if small) high school – one that served the
    families of the American Embassy in (West) Germany and
    nearby military. I recall very little poetry at all,
    although I certainly wasn’t one to pursue advanced
    literature courses – to the extent I would have been
    interested in anything advanced, it would have been
    science rather than literature; indeed, I’m not
    comfortable with the study of anything that’s not
    quantifiable. I recall struggling through Beowulf, a
    bit of Shakespeare, and far more of works along the
    lines of “The Catcher in the Rye” and one or two even
    more embarrassing in their content.

    I do recall that even then, few fellow students could
    read even prose aloud in a manner likely to engage an
    audience. I could, despite spending far less time
    talking than most people, because I read voraciously
    and fast. But even then, I’d have to have studied
    anything not in modern English to do it justice, and
    for poetry, would have to have a good grasp of the
    meter and of the pronunciation likely in the author’s
    time for anything that might be obscure or have shifted
    since then.

    One slight advantage some of us enjoyed – we had a
    community (not school) choir, directed by a man whose
    first interest was as a Doctor of Divinity studying the
    Dead Sea Scrolls (accurate copies them were unavailable,
    so in the opera off-season, he went to Israel to study
    the originals), and whose livelihood the rest of the time
    was as a professional tenor at the Bonn Opera. So
    naturally he had considerable understanding of proper
    phrasing in a multitude of languages, and conveyed what
    he could of it as applied to the far simpler material
    that his young choir performed.
    (To totally demolish one stereotype, I think he was
    a Southern Baptist, not what one might first imagine
    for someone studying documents that might challenge
    deeply-held beliefs, nor one possessing considerable
    cultural acumen.)

    I wonder if the pointless phrases you cite aren’t as
    much filler or punctuation for those merely less than
    fluent (or from unenriched backgrounds), rather than
    necessarily an indication of lack of more expressive
    alternatives. I recall a sergeant that had difficulty
    speaking a sentence without using the f-word as
    punctuation at least three times, but who could write
    factual reports (where the degree of certainty needed
    to be conveyed in plain language, and sometimes the
    sources and methods behind that certainty obscured)
    without undue difficulty. So while he might never have
    been inclined to compose poetry in classical style, he
    was certainly not in any practical sense illiterate.

    Much in the lack of erudite elocution may simply the
    lack of perception of how annoying verbal tics and
    twitches can be; or among some groups, there is the sad
    perception that showing signs of anything other than
    “street creds” indicates subjugation to the
    establishment. I recall a truly depressing news
    article describing a student that was eager to improve
    himself, that was beaten to death by a group of others
    his age for the crime against his group of speaking
    standard English and carrying a briefcase! I’ve heard
    too many stories of minority students subjected to
    lesser intimidation by their peers, and even among
    non-minority students, a vocabulary exceeding that of
    such cultural icons as Homer Simpson is all too often
    viewed as expressing overweening superiority.

    Poetry might be important for some interests and
    careers; but for everyone, the notion that ignorance
    (or even poverty) conveys some moral superiority should
    be regarded as dangerous. Poverty is only morally
    superior if one refuses to be defeated by it, or if it
    is voluntary in the service of others; and ignorance is
    never superior to anything.

  5. Bob says:

    Andrew Marvell, “The Definition of Love” (1571)

  6. Lenny J says:

    American students may not know the major English language poets, but they are very familiar with many writers of color. The poets you list are all Dead White People, so, of course, they wouldn’t be studied.

    My daughter is taking AP LIterature this year and this is the theme: multi-culturalism over the Anglo-centrist past. Last year, her AP World History class only mentioned railroads to note that they were used by the British to exploit the interior of Africa. The telegraph and the telephone did not affect history enough to be worth mentioning. The history of Asia, Africa and the Middle East was covered in detail; Anglo-American history, not worth studying except to note that it involved the exploitation of the environment and minorities.

    Your wife needs to discard the study of art songs in English, French, German, and Italian. She should focus on the authentic arts of oppressed ethnic groups and she would find that her students are familiar and at home in that arena.

    As far as orally reading poetry: that is not on the AP exam and will not be covered. Students only need to know how to answer multiple choice questions and write carefully constructed essays that are graded on a well-described rubric.

    1. I honestly hope your comments are satire, because, if they’re not. we won’t have a culture or civilization in another generation or two. But… by the way, a number of the names listed were women. Doe your comments mean that dead white female poets now been included among the “oppressors.”

  7. Dov says:

    Back in ’98 I worked part time at a B&N near the Mayo clinic.

    This post reminds me of two things that happened while working there. I’ll mention one.

    I learned that the public high schools were removing Mark Twain’s books because they used “racist language”.

    Seems odd don’t you think?

    1. Richard Hamilton says:

      While many have genuine causes over which to be offended, even more are
      simply too eager to be offended, or too ignorant not to be:

      Not enough that we’re expected to bowdlerize all of literature, some would
      have us remodel our very thoughts in their image, lest we offend any with
      grievances either actual or imagined. That goes far beyond the bounds of
      reasonable civil courtesy.

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  9. Jamey says:

    It’s really sad that they haven’t read Frost. I found _Stopping By The Woods On A Snowy Evening_ particularly easy to memorize, because of the rhyme scheme: AABA BBCB CCDC DDDD. For me, that third line off-rhyme serves as the key to carry me to the next stanza. Perhaps we need more, and better presentations of poetry. I was greatly impressed with the soundtrack for the 80s TV Series Beauty and the Beast, titled _Of Love And Hope_. As the original soundtrack is virtually all instrumental pieces, they’re interspersed with readings by Ron Perlman, whose voice really helps to bring them alive.

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