Kick’em When They’re Up, Kick’em When They’re Down

. . . in the immortal words of Don Henley.

Attacking poetry is nothing new, though back in the day it seemed like it might have been a fair fight.

When Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley called poets “the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” poetry was still a brawny contender. Rich brewers might have snickered at Shelley behind their hands, but probably most educated people nodded as solemnly as my dog when I talk to her (she doesn’t speak English, which limits her participation in the discussion, but she’s agreeable company and likes the sound of my voice) whether they understood him or not. Then, to be a poet–to be a man or a woman of letters–was a goal worth aspiring to.

Now, says Adrienne Rich,

poetry is either inadequate, even immoral, in the face of human suffering, or it’s unprofitable, hence useless. Either way, poets are advised to hang our heads or fold our tents. Yet in fact, throughout the world, transfusions of poetic language can and do quite literally keep bodies and souls together – and more.

So useless is poetry that the notion that business folk might learn something–anything–from reading Wordsworth is greeted with incredulity:

It may sound like a nice day out in beautiful surroundings, but can walking around Lake District sites synonymous with Romantic poet William Wordsworth really offer business leaders and local entrepreneurs the crucial insights they need?

Without having heard the whole of the interview, it’s difficult to know whether the professor who teaches the course is patiently explaining or limply defending his work when he provides a “rationale” for the study of Wordsworth’s poetry (I’m guessing the former). That the associate dean begins his defense with “Although some people laugh at the idea of learning from poetry” makes you suspect that he is one of those some people; why else introduce that which has no credence? Who laughs at the idea of learning from poetry? Tell me their names.

These who sitteth in the seat of the scornful are probably people who never learned critical thinking, because, as Martha Nussbaum says,

students exposed to instruction in critical thinking learn at the same time a new attitude to people who disagree with them. They learn to see people who disagree not as an opposing sports team to be humiliated, but instead as human beings who have reasons themselves for what they think….

Just as ignorance leads to fear of and contempt for what we don’t understand, Nussbaum says that learning to examine another’s perspective leads to creating a foundation of mutual respect:

And this is important not just for the individual thinking about society, but it’s important for the way people talk to each other. In all too many public discussions people just throw out slogans and they throw out insults. And what democracy needs is listening. And respect. And so when people learn how to analyze an argument, then they look at what the other person’s saying differently. And they try to take it apart, and they think: “Well, do I share some of those views and where do I differ here?” and so on. And this really does produce a much more deliberative, respectful style of public interaction.

If we laugh at the idea of learning from poetry, why read poetry at all? Why do we expect children to begin reading poetry in first grade and continue through high school and into college? Why indeed, as Martha Nussbaum asks, do we study the humanities? And what will be the consequences when we stop?

I see it as a sort of Mad Max meets mud wrestling. In contrast to the inner world Shelley describes, one that can be transformed by reading:

Poetry turns all things to loveliness; it exalts the beauty of that which is most beautiful, and it adds beauty to that which is most deformed; it marries exultation and horror, grief and pleasure, eternity and change; it subdues to union under its light yoke all irreconcilable things. It transmutes all that it touches, and every form moving within the radiance of its presence is changed by wondrous sympathy to an incarnation of the spirit which it breathes: its secret alchemy turns to potable gold the poisonous waters which flow from death through life; it strips the veil of familiarity from the world, and lays bare the naked and sleeping beauty, which is the spirit of its forms.   
All things exist as they are perceived: at least in relation to the percipient. “The mind is its own place, and of itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” But poetry defeats the curse which binds us to be subjected to the accident of surrounding impressions. And whether it spreads its own figured curtain, or withdraws life’s dark veil from before the scene of things, it equally creates for us a being within our being. It makes us the inhabitants of a world to which the familiar world is a chaos. It reproduces the common universe of which we are portions and percipients, and it purges from our inward sight the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being. It compels us to feel that which we perceive, and to imagine that which we know.

 References

Coalson, Robert. “‘There Is No Values-Free Form Of Education,’ Says U.S. Philosopher.” RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty. Radio Free Europe: Radio Liberty, 21 Feb. 2011. Web. 20 Sept. 2012.
Nussbaum, Martha. “Educating for Profit, Educating for Freedom.” ABC Religion & Ethics. Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 19 Aug. 2011. Web. 20 Sept. 2012. .
Reisz, Matthew. “Businesses Pay British Professor to Teach Them about Wordsworth | Inside Higher Ed.” Businesses Pay British Professor to Teach Them about Wordsworth | Inside Higher Ed. Inside Higher Education, 9 Aug. 2012. Web. 20 Sept. 2012. 
Rich, Adrienne. “Legislators of the World.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 17 Nov. 2006. Web. 20 Sept. 2012. 
Shelley, Percy B. “A Defence of Poetry.” A Defence of Poetry. Percy Bysshe Shelley. 1909-14. English Essays: Sidney to Macaulay. The Harvard Classics. Bartleby.com, 10 Apr. 2001. Web. 20 Sept. 2012. 
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