The thickness of poetry

Poetry should be a part of every homeschooler’s curriculum. It should also be a part of every one’s life and continuing education, but we are homeschoolers so that’s my frame of reference. How many books of poetry do you have in your house not including your Norton anthologies? I hope it’s a least a few. It’s good to have a bunch, with some always lying near at hand. Regardless, pick up just about any book of poetry and you are bound to find something like this:

Thou little Child, yet glorious in the might
Of heaven–born freedom on thy being’s height,
Why with such earnest pains dost thou provoke
The years to bring the inevitable yoke,
Thus blindly with thy blessedness at strife?
Full soon thy Soul shall have her earthly freight,
And custom lie upon thee with a weight,
Heavy as frost, and deep almost as life!

— from Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood, (lines 122–129), Willillam Wordsworth, (1804)

or this:

The pockets of our greatcoats full of barley–
No kitchens on the run, no striking camp–
We moved quick and sudden in our own country.
The priest lay behind ditches with the tramp.
A people, hardly marching–on the hike–
We found new tactics happening each day:
We’d cut through reins and rider with the pike
And stampede cattle into infantry,
Then retreat through hedges where cavalry must be thrown.
Until, on Vinegar Hill, the fatal conclave.
Terraced thousands died, shaking scythes at cannon.
The hillside blushed, soaked in our broken wave.
They buried us without shroud or coffin
And in August the barley grew up out of the grave.

Requiem for the Croppies, Seamus Heaney, (1969)

I love these poems. They speak in a different way than does prose.

I once heard a comedian make some reference to the fact that nobody buys books of poetry. The audience found his joke funny. I don’t remember how the joke went, but I remember the underlying claim that seemed to make the joke plausible. For me, however, the joke sounded odd. You see, I love poetry and we have many books of poetry in our house. I have even written a few poems over the years and once self-published a small book of poems. It seems as clear as day to me that poetry should be part of every one’s life on a regular basis. That includes modern poems and old poems and old old poems. I don’t say this merely because I like poetry, or because one should be nice to poets. Poetry has qualities that are good for one’s mind, qualities that are hard to find anywhere else (think of the poems above). Poetry links into our humanness in ways that other written forms do not. Poetry stretches our elastic brains in directions that are akin to taking one’s ship over the horizon. Perhaps poetry is even good for one’s soul. I am convinced it has been good for mine.

One common aspect of poetry, and even some prose, is the tendency to be slow in offering up its secrets. Poetry calls for re-reading, pondering, musing, and explication. Good poems reward such scrutiny, and the best do so in spades. There is a richness in the best works of poetry that is largely unmatched. Monroe C. Beardsley, in his Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism (1956/1981), says the following about literary discourse, and especially of poetry:

Because it contains deep levels of meaning that are only hinted at through connotation and suggestion, a literary discourse has a kind of semantical thickness when compared with mathematical and technical discourse. This is not to be equated with mere vagueness, looseness, flabbiness, or wildness; it is compatible with precision and control. But it gives the discourse an air of being more than it seems to be at first glance, or even, sometimes, after prolonged contemplation; as if dwelling on it further would turn up new meanings, as if it were, for all its liberality, always holding something in reserve. Hence the experience of coming to understand a literary discourse is a kind of growth; not, as with a simple symbolism, that either we have it or we don’t, but a matter of more or less, of depth or shallowness. All this is especially true of poetry. (Beardsley, p. 129)

Reading and studying literary discourses, and especially poetry is, in the words of Beardsley, about growth. Understanding is not an on or off, all or nothing destination. We grow, develop, and nurture our minds when we give ourselves over to the task of meeting the mind of the poet. Now, we could say this about any art. Certainly prose and painting and music are potentially much the same as poetry. But regardless, we are trained to be consumers. We rarely take the time works of art require. I’ve heard it said that Goethe once remarked that great literature is as hard to read as it is to write. I believe it. Great poems are not consumer items, but rich artifacts that continuously reveal, continuously burn like the bush before Moses. We ourselves are revealed in the confrontation.

What I like about Bearsdley’s quote is the idea of “semantical thickness.” Poetry, and to some degree prose, often relies upon its ability to be so rich in qualities and meaning that it is like a rich desert that, on eating the first bite, one wonders if it’s possible to finish it in one sitting. Of course this analogy breaks down. Taking on this semantical thickness, however, takes effort. It might even take years as one matures through life’s experiences and can then see “new” things in a poem. It might be better to say the process of reading and studying poetry is more like a journey that sometimes requires a detailed map and a seasoned guide, and sometimes requires merely sitting still and listening. This is a good process for children and adults. It stretches the mind. It reminds us, as well, of the beauty of language.

So grab that book of poems off the shelf and dive into the thickness of poetry.

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