Why Kids Are Not Taught Poetry

Now I’m totally hooked on Firestar, a novel by Mike Flynn. Was up till midnight reading, and so am doing that whole neck-snap thing as I doze off at my desk. Just fetched my 3rd cup of coffee. 5 hours of sleep is just not enough any more. I’m around page 200 of around 850. Couple more nights…

I may be the only reader who finds the educational reform aspects of the novel more gripping than the spaceship stuff. They are very well imagined, and, with a little effort I can suspend my disbelief: is meaningful reform of the current educational system more or less fantastical than, say, warp drive? Hmmm. But it’s really refreshing to find somebody really smart willing to rethink it all.

In a wonderful scene, inner city black kids are shooting hoops on a court that is a trap: two sides are building walls, the side that faces the street is chain link fenced with a single gate, and the back, which fronts an alley, is also fenced, although local wisdom has resulted in a hole being cut in it.

A black sedan drives slowly by, and everybody freezes – it’s the rival gang. After a couple moments during which the kids fear for their lives, the cars speeds away.

Lars Porsena from the Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum.

Three of the kids are best friends. They imagine themselves as, somehow, defending the neighborhood from the rival gang; at the very least, they would be defending themselves and the rest of their gang. The wisest of the three knows they have just escaped a very dangerous situation, in which, had violence broken out, all 7 people on the court would likely have been gunned down. One of them starts reciting a poem that they learned in their reformed school: Horatius at the Bridge

The three stood calm and silent,

And looked upon the foes,

And a great shout of laughter

From all the vanguard rose;

And forth three chiefs came spurring

Before that deep array;

To earth they sprang, their swords they drew,

And lifted high their shields, and flew

To win the narrow way.

Very appropriate. The poem is about how 3 brave Roman soldiers defended Rome against an invading army lead by the Etruscan king Lars Porsena around 509 B.C. They volunteered to defend the far side a bridge over the Tiber to give the rest of the troops time to cut it down, facing thousands of enemy troops. The kids change the last lines to more appropriately fit their circumstances.

But we can’t teach kids poems like this, not in a modern, state-run, ‘scientific’ school – the lines immediately preceding these, which are not stated in the novel, are:

Then none was for a party—

Then all were for the state;

Then the great man helped the poor,

And the poor man loved the great;

Then lands were fairly portioned!

Then spoils were fairly sold:

The Romans were like brothers

In the brave days of old

 

Now Roman is to Roman

More hateful than a foe,

And the tribunes beard the high,

And the fathers grind the low.

As we wax hot in faction,

In battle we wax cold;

Wherefore men fight not as they fought

In the brave days of old

This would suggest that not everything is better now than it used to be, breaking the first commandment of modernity: Thou shalt firmly affirm and believe that NOW is in every way better than THEN. Further, you’d need a little history, a little background, to understand this poem. Third, it’s not at a 6th grade reading level and includes plenty of words a kid has never seen before. You get kids started in thinking and investigating, and goodness knows what they’ll be up to next!

But, more important, it shows men willing to die for their city, and condemns partisanship. The poem points out that there is an inverse relationship between partisan fervor and bravery at arms: if a nation’s energy goes into one, the other will suffer – nothing George Washington wouldn’t say. In a world where claiming the appropriate victim status is the height of social enlightenment, there is no place for such things as wholesome patriotism.

Poetry instills a sense of beauty and history, and refines the ear. To love good poetry is to love the past, or at least see a little good in it. Poetry is another gateway drug to independent thought.(1) Can’t have that in a well run modern school.

I commend Mr. Flynn for his audacity and imagination in reforming schooling in his novel, in part, by reintroducing poetry. The Greeks, not to mention Americans in our one room schools before the ‘educators’ exterminated them, taught largely by means of poetry: An educated Greek knew Homer, as in: had the Iliad and the Odyssey committed to memory; the readers used in American one room schools were chock-full of poetry.

Those ancient Greeks and our American ancestors just a few generations back achieved things, set the bar for human excellence in many areas. They were no more perfect than we are, but didn’t let that stop them from dreaming and doing. Now? We wring our hands over stuff like ISIS and Boko Harum – what to do? Woe is us! Can you imagine what a Teddy Roosevelt or a Pericles would do faced with a similar issue? The image of stomping cockroaches comes to mind.

1. I can only remember being required to memorize a poem in school once: Baudelaire’s “The Enemy” in a college French class. It’s a miracle I didn’t need to take up alcoholism in order to drink that memory away. On the plus side, life presents many occasions where  Ô douleur! ô douleur! Le Temps mange la vie is a very proper response – and I can make it! In French, even!

On my own, apart from the many hymns I’ve learned, I’ve memorized Donne’s A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy’s Daywhich, while a perfectly beautiful poem, does not inspire one to political action of any kind. Also, know a boatload of Ogden Nash. And – that’s about it. Sad, really.

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Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

3 thoughts on “Why Kids Are Not Taught Poetry”

  1. The memorization of poems was a common feature at school, for one never knew when Sister would call upon you to recite before the class.

      1. And I started at St. Joseph in the Paleolithic Era. In 1965, I graduated high school. Maybe 10 years is all it takes.

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