Textbooks and the Audience for Poetry
My grandfather learned his rhetoric in a nineties two-horse town in north-central Ohio. His high school book (which I have inherited) was one of the popular ones of the day—Virginia Waddy’s Elements of Composition and Rhetoric. Like most rhetorics of its time, and unlike any now in print, the Waddy volume is chock full of poetry. The verse is not confined to the chapter on prosody (imagine—high school students doing sophisticated exercises in versification); it runs throughout, illustrating alike the mundane rules and the magnificent resources of the language. It is nineteenth-century poetry for the most part, and not all of that the best: a fourth of it is mere metered gentility, and another fourth is unmistakable kitsch. Tennyson, Kingsley, and Whittier recur, and there are names like Celia Thaxter and T. Buchanan Read. But Miss Waddy’s vision was sound, if not always her taste.
That this book and its contemporaries so often called on verse where we have long since dogmatically assigned prose reveals more than a difference between the English class then and now. Looking at these texts and at our own, one sees two ages. The old duodecimo Waddys and Bains and Bardeens breathe a larghetto, breathe without the anxiety of our divorces and specializations. They sometimes mistake the saccharine for the poetic, or, in the prose excerpts, the magniloquent for the eloquent; but they are at ease, and they are eclectic. They still belong, if faintly, to a world in which men saw nothing greatly amiss in a cosmogony evolving in dactylic hexameters, or in a botany growing by couplets. Whatever their other failings, they are not embarrassed by poetry—they are not consciously or unconsciously apologetic for metaphor. They had not yet been utterly split by the false choice: science or poetry. When high school textbooks expose students to so much verse, and even to the elements of versification, poetry is recognized as secure, as a part—and no superfluous part—of Anglo-American education. Diligent or perfunctory or remiss in his Waddy exercises, my grandfather never, in any case, sat easy on Pegasus. But at least he had heard of the beast, and he could spell p-r-o-s-o-d-y.
Today, with few exceptions, students leave high school innocent of poetry: in grammar, logic, and imaginative prose they may be only hazy. For two-thirds of our youth, this is the terminus of formal education. They can scarcely be expected to evolve into Whitman’s “great audiences.” The third who go on to college, and for whom there should be some hope of remedy, are too often given a minimal exposure to the muse’s art; and of course, they have been anything but predisposed to take a real interest in even that little. In freshman English courses, the study of poetry—if it enters into the syllabus at all—typically occupies three or four weeks, or less, out of a semester. This austerity may, in a hurried, pragmatic, Alexandrian age, be defensible—especially since most colleges require an additional semester or two of English, usually in the form of “literature survey” courses. In the latter, one might think, poetry will at last have its chance.
But no. The teacher himself, not infrequently, is a product of the same defective culture from which his students come. It is my impression, and I think it is the general impression, that the university teacher of English today is increasingly uneasy in the presence of poetry: he is likely to be eager to get past Keats and Spenser and on to George Eliot and Bernard Shaw. Even granting the unusual situation—a balanced curriculum and a balanced, sensitive, and adroit instructor—the teacher must still contend with the student’s habit of mind, to which poetry at this late hour is thoroughly alien. And when one looks around for some possible source of marginal exposure; when one turns to the rhetorics and to the humanities textbooks generally, either in the grade and high schools or in the colleges—what is to be found? Poetry is apparently proscribed— quotations and illustrations are invariably prose excerpts: exercises are prose exercises; and the prose itself is as likely to be the writer’s own (competentese, it might be called) as it is to he Burke’s, or Dickens’s, or Jane Austen’s.
If our concern over the lack of an audience for poetry is genuine—if our protest has not degenerated into a ritual celebration of the very separation of poetry from popular values, we must do something telling. To proclaim a Poetry Day, or to honor a poet occasionally at a function of state, pulls no carts out of mud. Circulating one’s anguish, or lacerating popular taste, is of even less value. The poet’s complaint and the critic’s analysis and recommendation register only with other poets and critics and a handful of intellectuals. What people are inclined to feel comfortable in and to keep a part of their lives from year to year and generation to generation is what they have grown up in. The sensibility, opened early and continually nourished, will remain open and demand satisfaction. We can begin at the beginning: we can stay closer to poetry from kindergarten on, through the books bought by the schools. A mere change in the material used for illustration and exercise in our books might do a great deal; if it does not, nothing at all will have been lost. There can be no doubt that fission and overpopulation and overstimulation and pragmatism and positivism have something to do with the neglect of poetry. But there can be no hope that an art which is unknown will be in demand.
Of course, it would help to add more poetry to our curricula directly. But in many cases our programs are already crowded; and a single course in poetry, or a greater allotment of time set aside for it in courses already going, does not serve as will the continual exposure that can come right along in every humanities class and especially in the English class.
In some of the better high schools, and even in many freshman English courses at the universities, students are required to study logic formally: the principles of induction, the structures of deductive reasoning, the attendant violations and fallacies. For sample arguments most textbooks supply only (or mainly) those isolated sentences, or short, manufactured paragraphs of Exercise Prose. The least we can do is demand first-rate prose, and some whole specimens. A whole or a brilliant passage may be no clearer an example than a fragment, but it is invariably more compelling. In teaching the rules and principles, we should at the same time be leading the student to a fascinating network of idea and attitude—to the intricately connected and wonderfully condensed and indirect hypotheses, generalizations, premises, and conclusions—discoverable in a Platonic dialogue or in a short poem. One of the most valuable things any teacher of literature or composition can do is to waken and reawaken the student to the miracle of language. Particularly in this age of massive propaganda and simplistic philosophies, the teacher who values the Western tradition of freedom and critical dialogue has an extraordinary obligation to give the student keen practice in developing his sensitivity to tonalities and implications.
One need not go about it in a spirit of too-high seriousness: for most students—from the eighth grade upwards, say—it comes with the force of revelation to discover the complexities and values that crowd so thickly but often so elusively in seemingly simple utterances. One takes up a short poem, or even a few lines from it, and begins, with the class’s help, to look for the logical and empirical sources of its assertions, and for the habit of mind that informs it. For the student, these investigations can turn out to be the first step toward nourishing a spirit of wonder and humility before the power of language—a spirit that may last a lifetime and that may prove to be of immense practical as well as aesthetic value. And, short of mayhem, anything which promises to develop a grain of humility or fascination in these days of graceless and wonder-broken students is worth trying.
Poetry is perfectly feasible here, if only as a supplement to the prose arguments—and if it will do as well as prose, it will do better. A simple assignment I have found effective in my logic sessions over the last several years is to ask the class to take a short poem and find the syllogistic or conditional or disjunctive arguments implied in it. Here are two poems that work well, for example. First, Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”:
Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down, and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Should’st rubies find: I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the Flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews . . .
Then Yeats’s “To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing”:
Now all the truth is out
Be secret and take defeat
From any brazen throat,
For how can you compete,
Being honour bred, with one
Who, were it proved he lies,
Were neither shamed in his own
Nor in his neighbour’s eyes?
Bred to a harder thing
Than Triumph, turn away . . .
There are all sorts of things one can do with these. Marvell’s poem has the structure of an If-then argument, which on close scrutiny seems to be fallacious, but which on closer examination turns out to be sound after all. The brighter students will spot implied value judgments right away:
A life of unconsummated love is an ignorant and wasted life.
No one wants an ignorant and wasted life.
Therefore, no one wants a life of unconsummated love.
The dullest students can hardly miss the generalizations about the kinds of things lovers are conventionally supposed to do. The Yeats poem is loaded with value judgments—few of them explicit—which serve as premises for equally implicit syllogisms:
Keeping one’s integrity is a more difficult and honorable thing than merely succeeding.
The more difficult and honorable thing is the more desirable.
Therefore, keeping one’s integrity is the more desirable thing.
Honor bred people lose their beauty of character by arguing with vulgar people.
To lose one’s beauty of character is a great misfortune.
Therefore, honor bred people should not argue with vulgar people.
This is still to teach logic of course, not poetry. But working with poetry in any way at all makes it a less exotic, fearsome thing; and for the student of some sensibility there is a poem instead of Item 7 in Exercise XVII, p. 331. Occasionally there may even be a side-benefit: the tough-minded but not impenetrable student may have to revise his inherited estimate of poetry as sheer flight of fancy.
It is every bit as practicable to illustrate the fortunes and misfortunes of commas and semicolons, or the mobility of adverbs, with verse as with prose. It is as easy to illustrate a technical disagreement between subject and verb with two lines from “Lycidas” as it is with a stock sentence:
Bitter constraint, and sad occasion dear,
Compels me to disturb your season due . . .
When it comes to the principles of syntactic inversion, poetry is the most natural and fertile resort:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by . . .
an inversion so touching in its majesty. To help students to see why we sometimes use prepositional phrases, instead of ’s, one may send them profitably to Bridges’s “Nightingales.”
What kind of poetry to draw upon? In general, the simplest, the most lucid, that will do the job—though of course much depends on the grade level and even on the particular school. Since modernist verse is usually tougher than traditional (and far more expensive to quote) this will mean, in most cases, Keats rather than Wallace Stevens. This is not such a misfortune—and not only because Stevens has his limitations. The mistake of many contemporary poets is to think that one of the reasons why they go unread is that the public is still attuned only to Scott and Longfellow. But the fact is that by and large the American public is reading—I say reading, and discount the unthumbed snob-volume on the coffee-table—very little poetry of any sort. If only Scott and Longfellow were as familiar as they are sometimes assumed to be! As a matter of fact, twentieth-century poetry is, on the whole, a peculiarly parasitic poetry: to come to it “unbiased” by the “romantic past” is to come to something rather like Etruscan. If the audience for the old poetry were larger, the audience for the new poetry would be larger; and if the audience for the latter were greater, then it would be a little less stung by the perversity that dismays so many sensitive and intelligent but insistently healthy people.
“But this is the Age of Acceleration. The student needs to work with the kind of written material he’ll be working with beyond school: articles, editorials, columns, business letters, stories, and novels—prose, in any case.”
Yes, but this is also a time when most teachers in the humanities, and hopefully most teachers everywhere, are reminding the student that our world has more speed than direction, and that the speed may well prove spiritually, if not physically, annihilating. I do not propose that we make blanket substitutions of poetry for prose, or even of imaginative prose for Exercise Prose. What I envision is some supplementation.
It is easy to understand why our humanities texts are so poetry-shy. There is a plague of unconscious scientism—the very scientism the authors are likely to pride themselves in condemning. There is the still unspent impetus of that withering blast against nineteenth-century gentility—I have noted that old Waddy constructs her exempli gratia too much in the spirit of breathlessly garnering great gems of immortal poesy. And there is mere crass or thoughtless conformity: “This is the sort of thing that will sell; this is the way all the other texts do it.”
I see a modest gain from a modest—from almost a mere mechanical—change in the proportion of imaginative to routine prose, and of verse to prose. I wish that I could see utopia in it. But I think that in these times no one who writes or reads poetry, or who cares about the spiritual and aesthetic heritage of Western civilization, will scorn the most modest change for the better.
Robert Lawrence Beum (1929–) is a poet, editor, and professor. At the time of writing he was a professor of English at Creighton University in Nebraska. He is the author of several books including Poems and Epigrams (1964) and A Prosody Handbook (1965).
Posted: February 5, 2012 in Best of the Bookman.