Monday, April 14, 2014


There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreampt of in your philosophy.
~Shakespeare (Hamlet)

We play around with rhyme all the time in preschool. In fact, it's one of those things we do without even thinking much about it. Most of our songs feature end rhymes, as do many of the books we read and even the "jokes" we make up often rely on rhyme more than reason to get a laugh. For instance, here's an actual one from last week:

"Knock knock."

"Who's there?"

"Teacher Tom."

"Teacher Tom who?"

"Teacher Tom . . . Bomb!"

Maybe you had to be there, but it brought down the house.

I recall the joy of figuring out how to write a poem that rhymed. I must have been around 6 or 7 because I was actually writing them down on paper to show mom. It amazed me that I could create such things, like learning I could perform a kind of magic. As a young man I continued to horse around with writing poetry, sometimes under the guise of "song lyrics" that never got set to music because music is a related type of magic that leaves me on the outside. As a writer, however, even though I don't write much poetry any longer, knowing how it works has been invaluable. One of the most important courses I took in college was a poetry workshop in which we read our work aloud to our classmates. How often does a writer get to literally see an audience respond to his work, the looks on their faces as they hear something they've never heard before? I came to understand the power of writing succinctly, densely, and how to rely on metaphor, which is the fulcrum over which most human communication takes place.

And although we all now know the two great practical truths about poetry -- all poems don't have rely on end rhymes and don't plan to earn a living from writing it -- this art form remains central to the human experience whether we know it or not, if only because of all those popular music lyrics we have stockpiled in our heads, the ones that come to us like messengers of epiphany, hope, warning, or doom when the time is right. 

In times of panic and pressure, Neil Young's Powderfinger takes over my brain: They left me here to do the thinking.

In times of despair, I hear Pete Townsend: My life's a mess/I wait for it to pass/I stand here at the bar/I hold an empty glass.

And we all want to shriek the pure joy of Alice Cooper: School's out for summer/School's out forever.

Some say that poetry is dead, but then how does that explain the continued popularity of Shakespeare, by far the world's most produced playwright, year in year out, a man who wrote almost exclusively in verse, usually iambic pentameter? You might not even know it, but you probably quote him every day:

A sorry sight
A tower of strength
Vanish into thin air
Love is blind
Set your teeth on edge
There's method in my madness
What's done is done
Up in arms
A foregone conclusion
Too much of a good thing
Wild goose chase
Make your hair stand on end
A fool's paradise
All of a sudden

All of these are direct quotes from the poetry of a man who was writing four centuries ago, and it only scratches the surface of this poet's enormous influence not only on our language, but on how we perceive the world. In fact, the great critic Harold Bloom argues, convincingly, that Shakespeare did not just create the modern English language and eloquently and incisively portray human beings, but in fact, invented the modern human in that our contemporary idea of "personality" was created by this poet. I will not go into the full argument here, but rather point you to the 700 page book Bloom wrote to defend his thesis. Whether you can be convinced or not, there is no denying the vital importance of Shakespeare's "dead" poetry.

But let's not let the eminence of Shakespeare lessen the importance of other poets. Many assert that the poet Walt Whitman invented America, that Emily Dickenson redefined the meaning of life and death, and that Rumi discovered the connections between religion, science, and love. The dismissive joke is that everyone writes poetry, but no one reads it, yet there can be no doubt that we all live poetry, written by both large and small poets every day of our lives. And none of us can predict which poet will move our soul today, let alone still be read four centuries in the future.

My own teenager discovered Shakespeare while still in elementary school and looks forward to a life as a Shakespearean actress. From the time she could speak it was with great music and poetry, her inborn sense of metaphor and rhythm often staggered me. I could not believe that my three-year-old said, "Nothing is perfect, except everything." No poet has ever written a line more dense with truth and beauty. I say to anyone who will listen that she is an artist to the core of her being. She writes songs that make me cry. After recently writing a sonnet, she said, "I decided to write it in iambic pentameter because that's how people naturally speak." And I realized she was right.

Poetry, I think, is far more central to our human experience than most of us realize, but you wouldn't know it by looking at our public schools. I recently came across this short piece from a high school English teacher that appeared in The Atlantic. I admire his attempt to defend the teaching of poetry as a practical thing, but came away depressed. 

In an education landscape that dramatically deemphasizes creative expression in favor of expository writing and prioritizes the analysis of non-literary texts, high school literature teachers have to negotiate between their preferences and the way the wind is blowing. That sometimes means sacrifice, and poetry is often the first head to roll.

Poetry is so much more than a clever way to teach grammar and spelling, yet this is essentially where this teacher winds up in answering the question of why poetry is "so important." I don't blame him, however, but this is what it's coming to in an American educational experience that continues to become ever more narrow, pinched between the mandibles of Math and Literacy. Increasingly, all that matters is what can be easily tested. There is no longer room for the magic and mystery which, I would argue, is the primarily stuff from which the universe is made.

The Los Angeles Times has long been, from an editorial perspective, a staunch supporter of the high stakes testing regime that is the source of this minimizing of education, which is why it is significant that their main education editorial writer, Karen Klein, recently announced that her own high schooler will be opting out of the tests, a choice that more and more parents are making. She gave a much more detailed rationale than this, but it's all I needed to understand her decision:

The scores have risen impressively in our district, but I can't honestly say that I have noticed an improvement in actual learning over the years. What has been noticeable: more teachers who don't feel they have time to do the creative projects with their students that they used to do. There was an elementary school teacher I particularly wanted my youngest to be taught by; she conducted poetry tea parties with her students, nurturing a love of writing, listening to writing and some good old-fashioned manners. But by the time my daughter was lucky enough to be assigned to that teacher, the poetry teas had disappeared in favor of covering everything in the curriculum that would be on the test.

Mankind without poetry is an animal without a soul, without mystery, without magic. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, a world without poetry is one of petty men ciphering the cost of everything and the value of nothing. Opt out, children, and instead read the collected works of Emily Dickenson or Rumi or John Donne or Marianne Moore or just spend some time with the lyrics printed on the back of your parents' old Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band LP . . . or the lyrics to any song for that matter. In fact, wouldn't that be the greatest, most joyful pro-education protest of all? A roomful of children pulling out their copies of Leaves of Grass instead of taking that damned test.

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