Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Poetry and Reading

I’ve started writing this blog in my head many times and at least three times on paper. I really want to discuss two things in this blog. Two interconnected things. I want to discuss poetry and I want to consider the ethics of reading. However, I’m aware that for most readers at least one and perhaps both topics are possibly way down the list of things you would want to read about. I am worried that people are wondering if poetry even has a place on this blog. Whether we can place poetry alongside our reading of Christian books and the occasional novel. It is, after all, a book club. I considered different openings that would engage the reader, capture you with the vision of this blog, but then I thought that I should just say it.

Well, dear reader, this is what I want to say.

I think reading poetry helps us to become better readers.

Now, let me explain what I mean.

As an English teacher these topics aren’t especially new. Anecdotally, it has been the students who understand (and, dare I say it? enjoy) poetry who happen to also be the students who show greater ability in reading overall. However, it wasn’t until last year, having read Reinke’s Lit! and doing some research into ethics in literature, that I became passionately convinced of the benefits (aside from the obvious pleasure) of reading poetry.

Our earliest experiences of language are often poetic. Before we can even understand the meaning, we hear the rhythm of language. Before we can read, we see the shape of the words on a page. So, why do adults often express an unwillingness to read (hear/see) poetry? Certainly it is honoured at important occasions; brought out like fine china as a sign of the significance of the event. But why do we shy away from reading it like we would a novel or a newspaper? Is it that it is too abstract, or that often, in the modern lyric form, there is no (or, at least, no discernable) narrative? Or, are we embarrassed, thinking that poetry is associated with the soft and the romantic?

Sir Philip Sidney, a sixteenth century soldier, courtier, and poet, wrote of poetry in his famous An Apology for Poetry, “Poesy therefore is an act of imitation, for so Aristotle termeth it in his word mimesis, that is to say, a representing, counterfeiting, or figuring forth- to speak metaphorically, a speaking picture- with this end, to teach and delight.”[1]  Sidney argued that poetry was a way of not only teaching virtue (gnosis), but also as a way of moving people to live virtuous lives (praxis). [2]
While it would be an obvious disagreement to make with Sidney that all poetry leads us not only to an understanding of virtue but also to virtuous lives, there is some merit in his idea that it is in mimesis that we can come to reflect on the world around us, on the human condition. Certainly, this idea is often one that is put forward as part of an argument regarding the value of reading novels! Furthermore, as I have hinted at, there is further value in the reading which poems demand.

So often we read quickly: skimming through an article, flicking pages in a novel. We come to texts with our own agendas, and read through that lens. We may not know much of the author’s context, or assume that we are their intended audience. However, is this way of reading ethical? While we will often speak of the wisdom (or virtue) of reading in terms of the content of the text, there is less discussion of the ethics of how we read. As one critic has suggested,
Texts demand ethical responses from their readers in part because saying always has an ethical dimension and because we are our values, and we never take a moral holiday from our values. We can no more ignore the ethical implications of what we read than we can ignore the ethical implications of life. But how does one discuss how one reads ethically?[3]
While this quote was specifically aimed at a consideration of our reading of novels, it can be applied to a consideration of all our reading habits.

Reading poetry demands that we slow down, read and re-read, even research to discover more about the poet, their time and their audience. Reading poetry requires an ethical consideration of how we read. We see and hear the poem, often before we understand it; however, seeing and hearing are integral to our understanding of it. We don’t read poetry in the same way we read an article or a novel. It’s a difference we are often ready to acknowledge, and is often why we don’t read poetry.

The theme of this year’s EQUIP Conference is ‘Wise’, with talks on 1 Corinthians 1-4. Christ, the incarnate God, Word made flesh, the wisdom of God. As Christians, there is wisdom and virtue in considering how we read. I want to encourage you to practise this by reading poetry (you might even find you like it).

So, I guess you want to know what poems to read?

You’ll just have to wait until next week.

In the meantime why don’t you ask a family member or friend what their favourite poem is (or read some of your favourites)?

Here’s a great site to get you started:

[1] Sir Philip Sidney, An Apology for Poetry (or The Defence of Poesy), (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1965), 86, ln. 17-20.
[2] “…as virtue is the most excellent resting place for all worldly learning to make his end of, so Poetry, being the most familiar to teach it, and most princely to move towards it, in the most excellent work is the most excellent workman.” Sidney, Apology, 96, ln. 41-44.
[3] Daniel R. Schwarz, ‘A Humanistic Ethics of Reading’, from ed. Davis and Womack Mapping the Ethical Turn (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2001), 5.

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