In Defense of Poetry
We’ve seen countless news stories and blog posts about the importance of improving science and mathematics instruction in our country. We’ve argued about the emphasis within the Common Core State Standards on complex, informational text. Here at Catapult Learning, we’ve built professional development programs to help teachers enhance literacy instruction in science and social studies. Everywhere you look, people are up in arms about our need to better prepare students for a complex, technological world.
I have no argument with any of this. I think it’s all correct, all on-target, and all necessary. And yet . . . I think we’re missing something.
We definitely need to help our students handle a wealth of concepts and content across all subject areas. But the place where many students have trouble is the grey area where facts are contradictory or confusing—where meaning isn’t quite clear, or shifts from moment to moment—where the truth of the matter lies not in “this or that,” but in “both things at the same time.” Why do we have so much trouble with this?
Because we don’t teach enough poetry.
I know, it’s a radical proposition. It’s ridiculous. Poetry barely makes an appearance in the Common Core standards. It’s laughable—it’s esoteric—it’s a relic of an earlier, gently humanistic world. You don’t need poetry to get an MBA, write a legal brief, develop the next generation of massively-multi-player games, or design a higher-capacity car battery. So who needs it? We do.
Why Poetry Matters
Poetry lives and thrives in the grey area of ambiguity—the place of always becoming but never quite being. That’s what it does best. It hints; it suggests; it insinuates, often without resolving into anything concrete. Whether it rhymes or scans or just dumps words onto a page, what makes poetry poetry is its ability to hover in a place where things can be and not-be, both at the same time.
Take a look at this stanza from E.E. Cummings:
since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;
wholly to be a fool
while Spring is in the world
Look at lines 2, 3, and 4. Notice how they suggest two sentences without quite settling down into one or the other. If this were prose, it would say, “Who pays any attention to the syntax of things?” Or it would say, “The syntax of things will never wholly kiss you.” Cummings jams the two sentences together, with “the syntax of things” as the pivot of the seesaw. It’s both ideas at once; it’s neither idea absolutely. It lives in a weird limbo of thought that you can’t quite pin down. That’s what poetry can do.
If you don’t grow up with a facility for understanding how words can do this, you may find poetry irritating, as my 9th grade students did years ago, when I tried to teach this poem. My students were maddeningly literal—and not just about poetry. No matter what we were discussing, they wanted to know: What does it mean? Is it this or that? It must be this or that! Everything had one meaning—one answer—only. And it was my job to hand it to them.
The inability to handle ambiguity carries over into prose, of course. Poetry is a great place to learn it, but great writers make use of it everywhere. I remember teaching a Ray Bradbury story called “The Dragon,” in which two knights in armor prepare to battle a terrible dragon. The dragon they describe breathes fire, has one horrible, yellow eye, is impervious to knives or spears, and travels the same path between two towns every night, mowing down anything in its path. In the final moment of the story (spoiler alert), as the knights attack the monster, the scene switches perspective, and we see two engineers on a train, mystified at the apparition they’ve just seen. Two knights in armor! They came out of nowhere. It happens every night. So weird.
“Ahhhh,” good readers say. The dragon is a train. The train is a dragon. Cool! But my students did not say, “Cool!” They didn’t get it.
I read the story to them again. They still didn’t get it.
I listed the attributes of the dragon and the attributes of a train, side by side, on the board. Now they kind of got it. But they wanted to know: “Was it really a dragon or was it really a train?”
My answer was, “Yes.” They were not amused.
They weren’t stupid kids; they just couldn’t process the idea that a thing could be two things at once—that it could exist in a strange netherworld of sort-of-being where both things (and neither thing) were true. There may be different perspectives, different points of view, but one of them always had to be “true.”
I think that’s a very limiting way to see the world. And it’s not just a Humanities issue. Our inability to hold two contradictory ideas in our minds keeps us from grappling with the world in all of its confusing, ambiguous mess. Our belief that all things have clear explanations and definitions that are absolute and exclude all other explanations or definitions makes us partisans on every topic of discussion, from education to climate change to religion to science. There are always two sides, and your side is always the right side, and the other side is always the enemy. It’s a terribly reductive and simple-minded way to see our infinitely complex and strange world.
The push to bring more primary source text into our science and social studies classes—to rely less on textbook syntheses and summaries—is motivated by exactly this understanding that students need to analyze competing and contradictory points of view, to learn how to compare, assess, and, ultimately, deal with areas where a single, simple solution is not reachable. But if we, as their teachers, do not have a facility for dealing with ambiguity—if we are not comfortable living in the grey areas—then we are going to be ill-equipped to help our students navigate these texts. They will be saying, “But what’s the answer?” And we will feel compelled to give them one.
Against a Flat World
Of course, poetry and metaphor deal with much more than just contradiction or ambiguity. Metaphor is about association and resonance and connectivity. The snow is a blanket upon the earth. The blanket keeps me toasty warm. Toast is . . . well, maybe toast is just toast. But you get my point: metaphor creates connections and resonances among the things of the world. It catches us up in a net of relationships. It makes the world vibrate: touch one string, and another hums along. Where there is no metaphor, though, nothing is like anything else, and nothing reverberates. The world just is—a jumble of discrete objects on a lonely plane of thing-ness.
When the world is reduced to discrete things, the only logical response to imagery is to accept it as factually true or reject it as nonsense. Either the thing is a dragon, or it’s a train. End of story. And sorry, Ferdinand, those are not pearls that were his eyes. They’re just eyes. The “sea change into something rich and strange” is . . . not.
On the plane of thing-ness, this approach makes sense. But the third option, beyond true and false, is vitally important. There is truth in poetry that’s of a completely different nature than the factual truth of journalism or history. When we see the snow asa blanket upon the earth, we think of winter differently: we catch the importance of that period of the growing cycle; we feel what it means to slumber, to hibernate, to wait in the warm, dark place for spring to come. We know something that’s beyond mere facts.
Our inability to understand imagery and metaphor makes it difficult for us to use imagery and metaphor to construct meaning. We risk losing the power of the stories that form the foundation of our culture. Modern monotheists will lose a lot if they simply dismiss ancient Greek mythology as nonsense. You don’t have to believe in the literal truth of the pantheon of gods to learn something vital and true about the forces that drive human behavior. Atheists and agnostics will lose a lot if they throw out the Bible as being “un-true.” There is profound truth and wisdom in the Exodus story, whether it happened historically or not. In fact, if you spend your days arguing about whether or not the Red Sea could have parted, you miss the whole point of the story.
To become free, the Israelites must cross a threshold that cannot be re-crossed. When the sea closes behind them, they are forever severed from Egypt. They can only move forward. Why is that important? Because almost immediately, the Israelites start whining about how hard it is to be free, and how much they’d like to go back. In fact, the entire slave generation has to wander in the desert and die out before their children can be considered “free” and worthy of entering the Promised Land. There is wisdom in this imagery—wisdom that our political scientists and pundits could learn, whether they believed in the literal truth of the story of not. What might they discover? That overthrowing or escaping a despot does not, by itself, make a people free. That without time and safe distance to learn freedom, people return to despotism. That in all times of profound change, people yearn for the old things they knew and understood—even if they didn’t like them very much. You can say all of that factually, but the image of the sea closing behind the Israelites and the desert opening before them says it so much more powerfully.
Sometimes poetry tells us that there is no answer. And that’s fine, too. Sometimes, describing the mess accurately is the best thing we can do. “Describing the mess,” is how Samuel Beckett once defined his job, when asked what his strange plays were all about. But he described the mess in ways no one before or since has managed. There are moments in “Waiting for Godot” that speak truth to me far more profoundly than what I’ve found in philosophy books.
So listen. I’m all for better math and science education. I’m all for historical literacy. But we live in a world that can be oppressively fact-filled. Knowing the structure and architecture of a thing is not fully knowing it. There are thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird, not just one. There is more to life than “the syntax of things,” as Cummings called it. It’s important to gather ye rosebuds while ye may. It’s important to hear your being dance from ear to ear. We’re not here for all that long, and there is so much—so much—to learn.
After all, as Cummings says at the end of his poem, “Life’s not a paragraph / And death i think is no parenthesis.”