I have said before, and will keep on saying until my strength gives out, that there is nothing more important in society than teaching the growing generations to express themselves in good, clear, concise, forceful English. For the individual, such a skill is a tool whose value lasts throughout a lifetime. For the nation, a highly literate population not only inspires enlightenment and preserves culture but also is a tremendous asset in economic development. It is desperately important that our school system measures up to this need.
I want to go a step further and make the case not just for putting much more emphasis on the teaching of English in schools but, beyond that, make a plea for more and better teaching of poetry. I realize that there must be a great majority who see such a suggestion as highly impractical, not to say slightly mad, at a time when the national emphasis is on science, agriculture, useful trades, and everything educational that might lead in future to better and bigger businesses, increasing profits, greater economic growth and multiplying the Gross National Product. It will be asked why should the teaching of poetry find any place at all in an educational system devoted to hard, practical, bread and butter development?
I believe there is an answer to this. Fundamentally it comes down to the fact that what distinguishes human beings more than anything is their use of language. And poetry matters profoundly because it is a central example of the use human beings make of words to explore and understand all experience. Poets work at the frontiers of language. They are deeply engaged with the struggle for clarity and meaning. Because they wrestle with and refine language in order to be lucid and expand the imagination they are, in the most crucial sense, guardians of the accumulated richness of our written and spoken inheritance. And if a nation forgets or neglects such an inheritance its soul dries up, however great its material success.
Poetry needs to be at the heart of teaching English because of the quality of language at work and experience that it offers to children. If language becomes separated from moral and emotional life – if it becomes just a trail of clichés or a parade of dull practicalities which fail to quicken and excite the mind of the reader – then we run the risk of depriving children of the full and vital resources contained in language. As Ezra Pound pointed out long ago, literature, among other things, is a way of keeping words living and accurate. It is the essential place of poetry to restore to students a sense of exuberance and vitality and excitement and passion in the acquisition of language and in the power and savour of words. The well of poetry must never be allowed to dry up in our schools.
The latent talent for self-expression in any child is immeasurable. Recognition of this should be at the heart of reading and teaching poetry in schools. The dull learning by heart of set poems is not teaching poetry. Children must be shown into the heart of poems. They must be encouraged to read poetry as a pleasure, as if a poem was indeed, in George Herbert’s phrase, to be opened like “a box where sweets compact’d lie.” And they also should be encouraged by the teacher’s own enthusiasm to express themselves in poetry. This working at the frontiers of language, the insight they will be given into all the possibilities of language, will do them eternal good.
Given the circumstances in Guyanese schools today I imagine this will all seem like some elitist dream, a plea for something that is crazily impractical. But I profoundly believe that those in charge of our educational system cannot and must not take this view. Encounters with poetry act, in the words of Franz Kafka, “as an ice-axe to break the sea frozen in us.”
Through poetry properly taught children find their own originality in the dignity, resources, and use of language. In this way they can themselves begin to make better sense of the world in which we live. If literature is the expression of a vital human dimension then the experience of poetry in a child’s life should not be a matter only of chance entitlement.