Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Recommended Reading: Education by Poetry

Robert Frost gave a talk he called "Education by Poetry" to students at Amherst College. He subsequently revised the talk which was then published, in February 1931, in the Amherst Graduates' Quarterly. In the talk, he refers extensively to metaphor. I often misremember the title of the essay as "Education by Metaphor". My favorite part of this essay is:

All metaphor breaks down somewhere. That is the beauty of it. It is touch and go with the metaphor, and until you have lived with it long enough you don’t know when it is going. You don’t know how much you can get out of it and when it will cease to yield. It is a very living thing. It is as life itself.

Each of us is capable of inventing metaphorical relationships of our own. Is a tree in summertime a piece of broccoli for a giant? If you think a tree is such a food, you could find words to express that. And so on.

Toward the end of his essay, Frost talks about four beliefs. It is much more difficult to invent a belief than it is to invent a metaphor. Careful use of metaphor; i.e., careful use of language, will help us to better understand our beliefs. As one seeks to better understand one's beliefs, one begins to see the importance of one's own attitude toward each thing held in one's thoughts. Does language serve me? Do I serve ideas I didn't invent?

During his career, Frost saw the rise of New Criticism. I often wonder what Frost thought of their insistence on the preeminence of the text and their deliberate turning away from any significance the biography of the poet might have. I don't know that he had any interest in it one way or another.

And when the so-called Confessional Poets began doing their thing, what did Frost make of that?

Into this soup of thoughts I'd like to throw the notion of intuition. In particular, the sense of what's possible. Each of us has a sense of what's possible. This sense grows as we continue growing. We have a sense of what's possible not only for our own lives but for the communities in which we participate. Our sense of what's possible will tell us when the community is enervated, just as someone familiar with metaphor will be able to tell when the metaphor breaks down.

I suspect, however, that a community participant who senses that the possibilities for her community are somehow limited is somehow unable to use language sufficiently well to share with others in her community her concerns and ideas regarding the future of the community. And if she is unable to communicate intelligently regarding such matters with people in her community, what will she be able to say about those limited possibilities to anyone outside her community? And so her anxiety grows.

I started out with the idea of recommending Frost's essay to readers. And I do make that recommendation. But now I want to bring in another line of thinking. Recently I listened to arguments by Ken Robinson for creativity in education. "What if," Mr. Robinson asks, "we regard creativity in education as highly as we regard literacy?" His remarks have been recorded and posted at YouTube.

The video runs about 8min 20sec. I thought it was easy to listen to.

So where am I going with all this? I am saying that it seems to me that the activity of meeting informally to read and discuss poems is a profoundly healthy and liberating activity. I will develop reasons and arguments for this but my sense of what's possible tells me there is an abundance of rich possibilities here. To organize such informal occasions around the birthdays of poets is to simply find one way of organizing.


Susan Richardson said...

There's so much of interest in your post, Andrew, and I heartily agree with your 'healthy and liberating' conclusion!

(Also started to feel quite nostalgic for Amherst - I was there for a year in the late eighties).

Andrew Christ said...

Thanks Susan! So kind of you to say so.

Apparently Amherst made an impression on you!

I feel sure that you are making an impression wherever you are.