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What We Lose When We Rip the Heart Out of Arts Education

It's National Poetry Month, but if the Common Core has its way, our children will hardly know what poetry is.

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children guessed (but only a few
and down they forgot as up they grew...
                              ( “[anyone lived in a pretty how town],” e.e. cummings

I began to teach poetry in conjunction with popular songs. Although my students in rural South Carolina were overwhelmingly country music fans, I focused my nine weeks of poetry on the songs of alternative group R.E.M. At first, that too elicited moans from students in those early days of exploring poetry (see that unit on the blog “There’s time to teach”).

Concurrently, throughout my high school teaching career, students would gather in my room during our long mid-morning break and lunch (much to the chagrin of administration). And almost always, we played music, even closing the door so two of my students could dance and sing and laugh along with the Violent Femmes.

Many of those students are in their 30s and 40s, but it is common for them to contact me—often on Facebook—and recall fondly R.E.M. and our poetry unit. Those days meant something to them that lingers, that matters in ways that cannot be measured. It was an oasis of happiness in their lives at school.

***

e.e. cummings begins “since feeling is first,” and then adds:

my blood approves,
and kisses are better fate
than wisdom
lady i swear by all flowers. Don’t cry
—the best gesture of my brain is less than
your eyelids’ flutter….

Each year when my students and I examined this poem, we would discuss that cummings—in Andrew Marvell fashion—offers an argument that is profoundly unlike what parents, teachers, preachers, and politicians claim.

I often paired this poem with Coldplay’s “The Scientist,” focusing on:

I was just guessing at numbers and figures
Pulling your puzzles apart
Questions of science, science and progress
Do not speak as loud as my heart

Especially for teenagers, this question, this tension between heart and mind, mattered. Just as it recurs in the words of poets and musicians over decades, centuries. Poetry, as with all art, is the expressed heart—that quest to rise above our corporeal humanness:

               Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;
       She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
               For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
                                           ( Ode on a Grecian Urn,” John Keats)

***

I have loved a few people intensely—so deeply that my love, I believe, resides permanently in my bones. One such love is my daughter, and she now carries the next human who will add to that ache of being fully human—loving another beyond words.

And that is poetry.

Poetry is not identifying iambic pentameter on a poetry test or discussing the nuances of enjambment in an analysis of a Dickinson poem.

Poems are not fodder for close reading.

Poetry is the ineluctable “Oh my heart” that comes from living fully in the moment, the moment that draws us to words as well as inspires us toward words.

We read a poem, we listen to a song, and our hearts rise out of our eyes as tears.

That is poetry.

Like the picture books of our childhood, poetry must be a part of our learning, essential to our school days—each poem an oasis of happiness that “machines will never be able to measure.”

***

Will we wake one morning to find the carcasses of poems washed up on the beach by the tsunami of the Common Core?