More on remembering poems

Some poor soul innocently asked their students in my Children’s Lit diploma to “recall personal experiences of responding to and creating poetry” in school. Next week they’ll be churning through reams of paper wishing they’d never asked. Anyway, here’s part of my answer:

Then along came a dishevelled, chain-smoking teacher with a wild look in his eye (denim shirts, for God’s sake) and an incisiveness that left me marvelling. I marvel still. At Marvell.
Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

Dickinson. Keats. Eliot. Plath. Frost. Donne.
Thou sunne art halfe as happy as wee,
In that the world’s contracted thus;
Thine age askes ease, and since thy duties bee
To warme the world, that’s done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere;
This bed thy centre is, these walls, thy sphere.

Smith (1967) criticises the teaching of poetry “as a sort of mystery, and to the student it remains a mystery, a mystery that belongs to shy men and elderly ladies” . My experience was the cliché: a class of girls with a gay teacher – albeit far from shy. But I quite liked it being a mystery, because it was a mysterious world within reach; with willing guides and no sense of reproach if you followed the wrong path.
Of course there were exams, the trials of forced memorisation, dull moments wrestling with Blake, who I only pretended to understand. We read aloud, discussed context, questioned interpretations, stared blankly when Mr Lewis asked us what “Mending Wall” might mean – none of us had ever seen frozen ground, never mind the sub-text.
Other teachers used poetry too, especially for social studies or political purposes, for it was the time of the Vietnam War (Owen, Sassoon) and a growing modern nationalism in Australia (Slessor, Wright, Walker) and a movement I now know to be Aboriginalism.
I always loved the way poems can slam home a message (political or not) and deliver that unexpected “Ah!” moment with a deft twist or a sudden thud.
Kathy Perfect (1999) sums it up:
“And when you like a poem, you care about understanding it. But it must be an understanding you can personally embrace. One’s own understanding is a vital element in forging personal connections to poetry and making the reading of poetry an activity one seeks instead of dreads.”

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