What poetry teaches

I find it difficult to convince friends – or anyone – that poetry is worth reading. But I mustn’t exaggerate. It isn’t so much that they dismiss poetry as not worth reading. It is more that in a world where time seems increasingly at a premium whatever time they have for reading – less these days than ever before – can better be spent on reading which keeps them up to date with what is going on, reading that instructs and educates and improves their prospects, reading relevant to their jobs, reading that entertains (if indeed there is time left after browsing the social media). And poetry fits into none of the categories. I don’t argue much. I can understand the points being made very well.

And yet I am sorry that poetry is not given much priority in people’s reading habits. I say this because poetry should not be left behind when we leave school and the curriculum set books.

Poetry so often gives us insights into life as we are experiencing it. It is why I often introduce poems into the columns I write – to illustrate what is happening in a particularly vivid way.

 

  • Refugees – people desperately seeking a home away from their own home – are growing in numbers around the world. In particular, currently, they are pouring – or trying to pour – into Europe from Syria and Libya and Africa.

The hundreds of thousands actually making the attempt are matched by the millions who have in mind doing so. The surge of desperate humanity is causing a bitter backlash.

Shakespeare, perhaps the greatest of all poets, saw it all very clearly 400 years ago. There is the manuscript of a play about Sir Thomas More held in the British Library not hitherto in the canon but now ascribed by most scholars to Shakespeare. In this play Sir Thomas More confronts an angry mob that is demanding the expulsion of “strangers” from England. “Grant them removed” More tells the mob:

Imagine that you see the wretched

       strangers,

Their babies at their backs and their poor

       luggage,

Plodding to the ports and coasts for

       transportation,

And that you sit as kings in your desires …

What had you got? I’ll tell you: you had

       taught

How insolence and strong hand should

       prevail,

 

How order should be quelled; and by this

       pattern

Not one of you should live an aged man,

For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,

With self same hand, self reasons, and self

       right,

Would shark on you, and men like

       ravenous fishes

Would feed on one another.

 

In the rich world now there should be more Sir Thomas Mores and less Donald Trumps and Madame Le Pens and Theresa Mays.

 

  • A friend was telling me with great sadness about his older brother who died recently. He was sad about his brother’s death but there was a further sadness in him and it is a sadness, regret, which is not uncommon. It is the sadness of feeling one has not given enough credit, shown enough love, expressed enough admiration when he/she was alive for the person who has gone forever. We should have seized the time. Now it is too late.

I was close to my father. All my life he gave me love and support and advice and encouragement which I depended on and treasured. I think I made it clear to him during his life how much I loved him and appreciated what he had always done for me and the whole family.

But did I make it clear enough? We always think there is time and then there is no time. Here is a poem by the American Robert Hayden written in very different circumstances to my own – but it has made an impression on me. Love comes in many forms and when it is shown it should never be forgotten.

 

Those Winter Sundays

Sundays too my father got up early

and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,

then with cracked hands that ached

from labor in the weekday weather made

banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

 

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.

When the rooms, were warm he’d call,

and slowly I would rise and dress,

fearing the chronic angers of that house,

 

Speaking indifferently to him,

who had driven out the cold

and polished my good shoes as well.

What did I know, what did I know

Of love’s austere and lonely offices?

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