Why Poetry Isn’t Read: Miseducation?
I don’t teach English literature. I do teach an elective course of the Psychology Of Art. One of the many specific art forms covered is literature, including poetry. I ask my university students if they ever read poetry, and if not, why. They don’t, and the most common reason given has to do with their prior introduction to it in what Paul Goodman aptly calls “compulsory miseducation”.
I’m afraid the wonderful film, Dead Poets Society, about a brilliant, unorthodox and inspiring teacher is fiction requiring substantial suspension of disbelief. I strongly suspect most of those with the responsibility of introducing young people to poetry don’t even read the stuff themselves. “Eat your vegetables, they’re good for you.” “Do as I say, not as I do.” If you want to enthuse someone about something, you have to be enthused yourself.
Even those teachers who sincerely care about poetry are undermined by the system. They don’t dare introduce anything that would interest a student if it could possibly be considered ‘disrespectful of authority’ or ‘intended for mature audiences’. Such material could offend some parent.
A friend of mine was invited to a local high school as part of the “Poets In The Schools” program arranged by The League of Canadian Poets so students could actually meet a real, more or less alive poet. It is based on the same worthwhile concept that brings cops or firefighters into the classroom. But my friend had made the mistake of reading one of his poems about spring that mentioned the smell of dog shit defrosting in the warm sunlight. A parent complained, and he was called into the principal’s office to be ‘reprimanded’, an incident he said brought back humiliating memories of his own experiences in high school.
Poetry has been ghettoized, and the ghetto is Academe. Too often students are taken on a field trip there by someone who lives in the suburbs and is very uncomfortable in that dangerous neighbourhood.