Yorik's skull, and graveside dirt Man's image has eyes, but the moon has light. --Hölderlin [In lovely blue...] Mark V. Zieg October 16, 1991
We are, or seek to be, teachers of writing. As such, we take it as our calling and our goal to help non-writers become writers, and to assist current writers to grow in their trade. We take it as an accepted fact of life that people need to communicate in order to succeed, or even survive, in this Information Age, and that that communication must often be expressed in writing. We teach, therefore, that we write that we may live – making shopping lists, filing grant requests, conveying instructions, performing all of the little tasks that engage us throughout life. Or is there another reason to write? Could it be, perhaps, that we have mistaken a cause for effect, substituted an antecedent for a consequent, and unthinkingly perverted an even deeper calling…to live, that we may write?
This is an interesting position, one which begins to blur traditional distinctions between the pragmatic tangibility of educational practice and the more elusive threads of philosophy and religion. Many would say that it is inappropriate altogether, that it is not for teachers to decide why a student should write, merely to instruct the how. And yet, motive can never be wholly severed from technique: just as an engineer needs to know precisely where a rocket is expected to fly before he can design engines to get there, a writer must be firm in his own understanding of why he is writing before he can confidently embark on his own metaphorical journey.
The French critic Rémy de Gourmont suggests that “the sole excuse which a man can have for writing is to unveil for others the sort of world which mirrors itself in his individual glass.” (Wheelwright 15) A curious supposition, one running contrary to most professed in this day and age. However, it is a thought oddly resonant with children’s native habits of speech and play, one which has met with surprising success when implemented in elementary and secondary classrooms (Arnstein II, 33). Children, when urged to write, after they have surmounted an initial resisted to disclosure and vulnerability, display an amazing eagerness to share their view of the world, and delight in finding aspects of that view reflected in their fellows’ writing. This sharing of perspective, then, is one rationale children will cling to throughout their writing careers.
Others turn, or can be turned easily enough, to writing as a response to being itself. The child burdened by fears and pressures beyond his reckoning can find a powerful release in the act of writing. Thoughts and feelings for which there are no ready access in the hardened walls of science and academics can gain purchase in the Elysian fields of writing. Indeed, more so even than adults, children feel a hunger for such release from harsh reality, as these natural daydreamers and rhapsodists struggle to enter a world glum and dreary compared to their “childish” flights of fancy. Kenneth Koch fitfully reports that “there is a condescension towards children’s minds and abilities” in contemporary writing manuals. (7) This patronizing attitude is particularly dangerous as it threatens to de-sensitize the one population expressing a natural inquisitiveness into the nature of selfhood.
These and other incentives to writing urge inspection of the mechanics and mannerisms of authorship themselves. While most writing courses, especially at the lower levels of elementary and junior high, focus all their energies on the technical aspects of composition – punctuation, grammar, and the like – these elements may be altogether unsuitable, even counterproductive, to fulfilling the larger goal of teaching students to write according to their own lives, of their own passion and fashion. Cold, analytical composition certainly has its place in the world – the Apollonian world, at least – but no lover of words ever felt that “catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or even accompanied by) tears” after reading five paragraphs of expository instruction of the anatomy of a carburetor. (Tolkien 68) Writing is not, nor should it ever be presented as, a tired and dry fabrication of Platonic idealotry. What is left? What remains, what can stir the hearts of children and adults alike, inspiring and siring writers young and old? (The discerning reader has by now no doubt already guessed the answer :-) Poetry!…and the immense and open-ended realm of related poetical styles.
After all, what is it that inspires teachers to dedicate our lives to the forgiving and forth-giving of the written word? Is it a love of pluperfect verbs? An embittered and lifelong struggle against comma splices? Or is it a memory of the first time we read A.E. Housman, Wilfred Owen, Hopkins and Ginsberg, Pound and Dickenson, finding ourselves, our dreams and our dreads, echoed somewhere in their pen’d songs? A charity, vain yet somehow munificent, that seeks to rekindle the same fire we first felt in reading Hamlet’s sepulchral soliloquy? Naturally, both instances contain hints of the truth, while neither gives its entirety. Grammarians have been known to have souls, just as poets can be picky about punctuation. But it is important to maintain a cautious yet carefree balance between the rigid and the spontaneous, the corporeal and the choral.
Unfortunately, that balance tends to topple in one direction or the other. As Flora Arnstein writes:
For many teachers [poetry] presents a bewildering subject. They recognize that something about the teaching of poetry differs from the teaching of social science, arithmetic, or even English in general. They feel ill at ease when called upon to teach even the token amount of poetry included in most English courses. They are not to be blamed for their bewilderment. They themselves are the product of teachers who shared their own lack of preparation. The poetry to which each group was exposed in its youth seemed as meaningless, as devoid of value as today’s teachers suspect will be the poems they are called upon to present to their own pupils…(Arnstein II, 1)
On the other hand, proponents of the “superior thing” (Mearns 33) can go way overboard in expecting their students to see everything in psychedelic hues and metaphysical allusions. Our students will inherit a world increasingly composed of asphalt and cement, one demanding concrete language and the skills to communicate on an efficient as well as ethereal plane.
For the most part, though, the educational scale is weighted solidly in the sphere of the manifest and the obvious, leaving little fear of “corrupting” our youth with a renewed vigor for life and perception. In the words of Douglas Anderson,
Lately, our poetic health as a people has been suffocating in private imagery and academic tedium. That’s sad, because poetry is a powerful and intimate force that can start us to communicate more with one another, to begin closing the grim chasms in our common faith and our sense of worth. Poetry is a public art. It is for everyone, because the music is in everyone. (12)
Likewise, Amos Wilder assures us that
Before the message there must be the vision, before the sermon the hymn, before the prose the poem. (1)
It is not mere happenstance that educators and arcanists alike share this conviction that a poetical existence is not only preferable, but absolutely essential for a sensual and healthy life. Nor is it coincidence that humanity has amassed such a prodigious anthology of poetry over the millennia. Poetry does not rest as a crown at the pinnacle of human endeavor; but at the bottom, entangled most messily amongst the roots, from whence the spirit draws its strength in the winter of our soul. Yes, there are aspects of writing, both technical and bland, which we must study and wield if we are to subsist within our present culture; but without poetry, the poesis forming our foundations of belief and thought, we have precious little to live for.
Teach the infinitives. Diagram if you must. But please, remember ten-year-old Emily, who asks,
What is poetry?
Poetry is like the stars
(Arnstein I, 41)
We made it to the moon on writings expository and judicious, but first looked into the sky with verses inquisitory and delicious.