Why teach poetry?
If you’re a conservative who believes that the main purpose of schools is to train people quickly to use skills in the service of economic growth, literature courses are at best a waste of precious taxpayer money, at worst an encouragement to the unskilled to dream their weekends away and become even less skilled.
If you’re a left-winger who believes that the main purpose of schools should be to catalyze rejection of capitalist ideology, literature courses are at best a waste of precious critical-thinking opportunities, at worst an indoctrination into how to buy pretty little leisure commodities like nice editions of Shakespeare instead of manning the barricades.
(Leave aside for the moment that there are fifty of the former for every one of the latter, and that legislatures and school boards are full of such conservatives and completely empty of such left-wingers.)
Between two such poles of thought, teaching poetry as poetry, as Matthew Arnold’s “best that has been said and thought in the world” or Aristotle’s idea of a work of art “through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these
emotions,” seems pretty naïve. Neither route is going to help students succeed in the real world, as those who study the balance sheets of education (either financial or ideological) would like to define success.
In this context, Stephen Spender’s “Elementary School Classroom in a Slum” is a work of rhetoric in defense of poetry. Poetry, in Spender’s words, should “break the town,” but not in the sense of political revolution. We deserve poetry itself, as a source of beauty in the world, untied to direct political action or even to right-thinking.
The possibilities are unpredictable and unruly, involving the opportunity to “run naked into books.” But everyone, especially the less-privileged, deserves the chance to know such aesthetic pleasure. As someone tells Azar Nafisi in Reading Lolita in Tehran, “I don’t know why people who are better off always think that those less fortunate than themselves don’t want to have the good things—that they don’t want to listen to good music, eat good food or read Henry James” (NY: Random House, 2004: 221).
Samuel Johnson, the great 18th-century man of letters, once asked a boy who was rowing his boat ‘What would you give, my lad, to know about the Argonauts?’ ‘Sir, (said the boy,) I would give what I have.’ (James Boswell, Life of Samuel Johnson, ch.21). We do not live by bread alone, or by computer skills, or by a subversive attitude toward ruling ideologies. Poetry keeps insisting on its role, useless though it may appear, in a happy and healthy life.