On Teaching Poetry
by S. Fowler Wright
Published by: The Torchbearer Sept. 1924
I am writing this article to urge the supreme importance of teaching poetry in schools.
I mean explicitly poetry, not poems, though the use of poems may be an obvious means toward the desired end. But it is always best to see the ultimate aim clearly. If our poetic literature consisted of such poems as those written by (for instance) Ovid, I might suggest the teaching of poetry by some other medium. The real goal is the cultivation of imagination and ideality; both of which are of this precise importance that the supremacy, or, indeed, the existence of our race, is the stake at issue.
It is fortunate that poetry is, of all the arts, the best adapted to class-room teaching, because it does not depend upon any manual or instrumental accessories. It is
The Highest Of All Arts,
being of the mind entirely, and it is the art in which the genius of our race has interpreted itself most successfully.
We are not an artistic nation. Our love of material beauty is too apt to be ashamed or apologetic - the Teutonic element in our hybrid race suggesting that beauty is an indecent thing, whereas ugliness is the hall-mark of all indecency.
We can claim no European supremacy in painting, music, or sculpture, and I am inclined to think that we are the only nation which has ever gained a world-eminence without producing a characteristic architecture.
But poetry is unlike music, or sculpture, or painting, in that it does not depend upon the physical perfection or sensitiveness of ear, or hand, or eye. It is conceived and fashioned in the silence of the mind itself. And in the realms of thought, working through the invisible medium of words, which themselves have no material existence, and having for our use the richest and most varied language that the world has known, we have produced a poetic literature the supremacy of which cannot easily be challenged, either from ancient or modern times.
No Poetry Too Good For Children.
There is, therefore, material of the highest quality available for such teaching, and there is the certainty of swift and sympathetic response, especially if it be recognised that the poetry which is unsuitable for children is not such because it is too good, but for the very opposite reason that it is not good enough.
The evidence of this response, if any were needed, could be overwhelmingly supplied from the records of the Schools Competitions which 'Poetry' has now continued for several years, concerning which I wrote in 1921:
"One of the most remarkable and significant features of the Competition is the high standard which is maintained by certain schools, in comparison with others of similar grade, and that while the entries from the Boys' Schools of all grades are distinctly inferior to those from the Girls' Schools of similar status, yet in one or two instances (of which the Carlisle Grammar School is a conspicuous example) the entries 'on each occasion' (and of course from different boys) have been well above the average both in number and quality.
"In this case the English master takes a keen interest in the Competition, and it appears evident that the difference arises more from the
Attitude And Ability Of The English Masters
or mistresses concerned than from that of the material with which they are dealing."
In October last - two years later - when the corresponding report was written by Mr. Crompton Rhodes, I find that he commented:
"Other entries of merit in this section are: 'The Smuggler', by Shiona Macpherson (Canaan School); 'Sedgmoor', by A. C. Frost (Carlisle Grammar School); and an untitled ballad by Vivian M. Gregory (Ivybridge, S. Devon), which show ability to master more or less of the difficulties which beset the writer of narrative verse.
"The poems from Carlisle Grammar School once again stand out for their vivid and definite phrases, their opulence and accuracy of diction, and their selection of suitable metres."
The fact that, after such an interval, the work of the Carlisle school should again have attracted special notice, from another mind, is surely more than coincidence.
But this sustained difference in the quality of the entries submitted has been noticeable in the case of other schools also.
It would be unfair to mention this one without bracketing these also as having a record of equal honour:
The Canaan School, Edinburgh.
The Crediton High School, Devon.
The High School for Girls, Handsworth.
The Lothian School, Harrogate.
The Queen Elizabeth School, Scarborough.
There was another school which was equally conspicuous until a certain mistress left, after which it fell at once to the usual level of mediocrity.
But is it desirable, a correspondent asks me, to encourage children to write bad verse, for which they have no natural aptitude?
The reply is fourfold.
First, the teaching of poetry, if it have no other result, must at least lead to the using of language with precision, which my correspondent has not learned to do. He had no intention of suggesting that it is the writing of bad verse for which children have no natural aptitude, but he probably suffers from having attended a school at which he was informed without being educated.
Second, they don't all write bad verse. Some of it is almost unbelievably otherwise. Here is a poem from Streatham Hill High School which, on the combined evidence of parents and teachers, was the unaided work of Marjorie Peck, aged eleven.
The Wooden Chest.
The old chest came from beyond the seas
- And there by the nursery fire it stood,
- That were carved in these panels of cedarwood.
- And roofs of a wonderful fairy town,
- And a king in his royal robes and crown.
When Margaret smiled in the firelight red,
- It seemed that the king at the palace door
- And the carven Dragon waved his paw.
- With her magical wand, would make me small,
- Past those foreign trees and palaces tall."
"I would peep round the corners and play," said she,
- "Up and down on the stairs of gold,
- The rooms, with their treasures of wealth untold."
So Margaret wondered and wished, until
- Her eyelids closed and she sank to rest,
- Visit the town on the Wooden Chest.
- A hundred other examples could be given were space available.
I recently annoyed a good many professional critics by pointing out in the preface to an Anthology of Dominion Poetry that bad poetry is usually written by professional poets. What the amateur more often writes, whether child or man, is
Good Poetry Badly Expressed,
and therefore more or less inarticulate, which is a very different thing.
Anyone who doubts the essential soundness of the judgement of English children as to what real poetry is should take a glance at 'Poems Chosen', a selection decided by the votes of tens of thousands of children, and which has resulted in a collection of the greatest lyric masterpieces in the language, 'with no padding whatever'.
Third, there is no suggestion that they should be encouraged to write verse of any kind, unless they have a natural desire to do so.
Fourth, the quality of the verse is incidental only. If you teach a child to love poetry he may have a natural instinct to create it. We do not refuse to teach an eager child to paint or model because it is improbable that a Raphael or a Phidias will be the issue.
Beyond this, I suggest that poetry should be regarded not merely as an art of great technical beauty and complexity, but as a vitalising force, to which British children will respond with peculiar readiness, and which has supplied the impulse which has made us at once the greatest commercial and the greatest colonising race of which history holds record.
It was these faculties of imagination and ideality which launched the 'Mayflower' and the 'Golden Hind', as it is poetry which keeps their memory fresh today.
It is poetry which leads us to the barren conquest of the Southern Pole or to overcome the virginities of the Himalayas.
It is the poetry of our race which would make its name an inspiration for millenniums, though the centre of wealth and power should move to New York or Tokyo, or to some unbuilt city of Australasia.
Certainly it was the poetry of our race which saved the civilisation of Europe ten years ago, when men of every caste and creed were stirred to indignation by the invasion of Belgium.
I don't wish to be misunderstood. I hate cant. We guaranteed the integrity of Belgium to save ourselves. We entered the war to save ourselves from a most deadly peril, and had we failed to do so, we should have become a nation of helots; but the fact stands that, while this peril was very dimly realised by millions, it was the invasion of Belgium which united Englishmen of every class and party, as no meaner motive could have done, and that no other nation in Europe would have responded equally to a motive which appealed to the imagination only.
Who can doubt that, if the problems of peace had been approached in the same spirit of exaltation and self-sacrifice which inspired our warfare, that they would have been brought to very different issues today? Is it not the spirit which is baser? We have passed through a period of reaction and of spiritual depression, the war robbed us of many who would have been our natural leaders in thought and action. Many who were left were tired and saddened by an end which came without decisive victory, or any reasonable assurance of a lasting peace. It is pre-eminently the work of those who teach the young to prepare them to take up the burden of life in a nobler spirit than that which is at work around us, so that the lines which I wrote last year, not perhaps without bitterness, but not, I think, falsely, may become less true than they are today, that
"England lies in Flanders: England lies
- Beneath the blue of Hellespontine skies,
(Birmingham Poetry 1923-24)