Why do schools teach young adults to appreciate poetry as they might chew sawdust?

“It looks rather odd to the poet, however, to see whole shoals of students who neither want to write poetry nor to know how it is written, being solemnly taught how to take a poem to pieces, but seldom how to put it together again, or what to do with it in order to enjoy it.”


Poetry has an uncomfortable, ‘estranged-uncle’ kind of place in Australian culture. I remember when I first starting reading poetry, feeling terribly embarrassed whenever anyone ‘caught’ me with a book of poetry ( – poetry!). Even as an undergraduate, I habitually turned poetry books face-down on the table, lest someone see what I was reading. Why is it embarrassing to read poetry? I have no idea.

While poetry is still taught in schools as included in the higher education curriculum, what is taught is anything but the pleasure, value and import of poetry. And while any self-respecting independent bookstore reserves a shelf (or part thereof) for poetry, more often than not one finds the very same books on all the different shelves (or part thereof) – those that are required reading in high-school, and those god-awful collections that come out every year, edited by people like Phillip Adams, with titles like 100 Australian Poems to read before you die. (I believe I may, perhaps, have complained about such collections hereon before. Where am I going with all this? Not very far.

All this is to point out that the following piece of writing is rare among its kind, and therefore particularly special (and exceptionally great) – this is the late Judith Wright, on the place and value of poetry in Australia:



‘ [ . . . ] Who is the poet’s audience today? Very few people now read poetry for pleasure, but some, unfortunately, are forced to read it for the purpose of being examined in their appreciation of it. Poetry, like medicine, is not often taken for its pleasant taste; it is prescribed. This is enough to make it unpopular at the very outset.


Well, he may console himself, sometimes a sympathetic doctor can be found who will recommend a sea voyage, or a mountain holiday or even a glass of wine before dinner. Perhaps, for some readers, his poetry may turn out to  be as enjoyable as any of these things. These days it is about the only hope the poor fellow has.


For perhaps poetry is the least popular of the arts, just now. For one thing, it has no obvious social advantages. An exhibition of paintings is a place at which to meet other people and wear one’s new hat, as well as seeing the paintings; a concert is a social occasion as well as a musical one. Then there is the matter of prestige, which can attach to owning valuable paintings or even to knowing a lot about them, and to being seen at all the important first nights. But poetry is a very a-social pleasure, and no prestige attaches to owning a lot of books of poetry (unless they are all first editions and rare copies, and this has nothing to do with the poetry they contain).


Since poetry has so small an audience, the notion has begun to grow up that is a kind of survival from more primitive times, a form of communication no longer needed by modern man. The fact is, rather, that modern man is something like a survival of poetry, which once shaped and interpreted his world through language and the creative imagination. When poetry withers in us, the greater part of experience and reality wither too; and when this happens, we live in a desolate world of facts, not of truth – a world scarcely worth the trouble of living in.


Walt Whitman put the distinction between fact and truth succinctly, when he said,


“Logic and sermons never convince,

The damp of the night drives deeper into my soul.”


Poetry is concerned with what drives deepest into the soul. However, much we may learn academically about night and dampness, unless we have experienced them we do not know the truth about the. This kind of truth is the business of poetry.


Poetry deals first of all, that is, with experience – physical experience, or emotional experience, or mental experience – and nothing that the poet learns from book  or from other poets can teach him to make a poem, unless he experiences the things he writes of, and knows them to deeply that they become his personal truth.


So the earliest poems in this book, for instance, come from a times when, returning after years spent in the city to the country where I was born and brought up, I rediscovered that early experience from a new angle of understanding, and so was enabled to write about it. Poems like “Bullocky”, “Country Town”, “South of my Days”, came from this new interpretation of what I had seen and felt years before. Interpretation – because the poet can never be, as the novelist sometimes may , a camera; perhaps he is more like a kind of self-acting  kaleidoscope, arranging and rearranging bright scraps of experience into different shapes and patterns in an attempt to make a new kind of unity and meaning. What occupies him most is not the question, “Why did it happen”, nor “How did it happen?”, but rather, “What does it mean to me that it happened?”


This is far too subjective and interpretive a question for the fact-finding outlook of today, and no method of tabulation can  be produced that will help in finding the answer. Only the mind and the imagination that “looks before and after” can deal with facts on this level.


So modern critical method, on the whole, prefers to leave on one side the question of what poems mean and are, and to concentrate on analyzing their verse-craft and their internal structure, on the same principle as the botanist who disclaims interest in the whole plant and its life-history, and concentrates on its parts and internal organisation. This can be a useful way of getting to know how a poem is written, but it can never inform us how a poem is made.


Moreover, it is useful mainly to those who themselves want to write poetry, or to criticise poetry, and therefore want to know how other poets have manipulated language and rhythm to gain their effects, and in what way they have handled their material. It looks rather odd to the poet, however, to see whole shoals of students who neither want to write poetry nor to know how it is written, being solemnly taught how to take a poem to pieces, but seldom how to put it together again, or what to do with it in order to enjoy it. For after all, poetry is not meant to be an instrument for sharpening knives upon.


So poets, faced as they too often are with reproachful or earnest students as their only audience, can only plead in their defence that they did not write the poems to be studied, but to please people who like poetry. The kind of pleasure they are meant to give is the pleasure of exploration, not of exposition – exploration of the poet’s special insights into experience, into this capacities of perception and feeling; insights conveyed through a certain mode of communication, the mode of symbol and rhythm, which man has used to express his deepest feelings ever since he began to be able to sing.


Poetry ought not to be thought of as a discipline, but as a kind of praise.


Judith Wright.’



Reproduced as included in the introduction to ‘Judith Wright: Selected Poems’ (1963), published by Angus & Robertson. This particular excerpt was taken from pages v – viii.



NB: this post may require further editing . . . I got a bit excited //


Filed under Current social issues, Poetry turnstile

6 responses to “Why do schools teach young adults to appreciate poetry as they might chew sawdust?

  1. Adam B

    What a great post. Reminds me of a line from a Les Murray poem: Nearly all could preach, very few could sing.


  2. Ah I’m glad you enjoyed it 🙂 Judith is the Aunty I always wish I’d had – though I have to admit, the fact that she uses a masculine pronoun when writing about herself (and other/all poets) kind of weirds me out.

    And thank’im you for the link to Murray’s sweet little poem. I’ve never read more than a-few-lines-here-and-there of Les Murray. (Perhaps I should seek him out one day soon.)

  3. Poetry is best listened to in the classroom, provided the teacher’s good. Otherwise, it should be flogged and posted urgently, with all the mysterious authority of government messages:

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