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Poetry's Worldly Lessons

02 March 2016

So how can poetry teach us about the world in which we live?

The question posed to the current Year 13 Literature class as they prepare toward their Part 3 study on Literary Genres. This study focuses on a particular genre and looks at its history, conventions and some of its keys texts. For this plucky bunch, it’s poetry and in particular, the work of Emily Dickinson, Seamus Heaney, Carol Ann Duffy and Chaucer.

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At present, we have been looking at the ways in which each writer tackles one of poetry’s central themes: love.  Chaucer’s The Miller’s Tale, a tale about bed-hopping students, dangerous women and pathetic men takes a comic approach to the subjects suggesting that whatever happens in romantic relationships, it’s the women who hold the power and all the cards. Perhaps, as Angela Carter once said, this is the earliest form of feminism in English Literature; Alison’s laugh “tee hee” at Absolom’s mistake in kissing her on the entirely wrong cheek characterizes Chaucer’s view – it can be argued – that men are fools when it comes to love and desire.

Well, why not compare this view with an early feminist and a later one as Emily Dickinson, writing in Massachusetts in the 1860s, conceals her love and desire behind a love letter which can only suggest her thoughts, not tell them, as she intriguingly “left the verb and the pronoun out”!  While Dickinson spares her blushes, Carol Ann Duffy (the first female Poet Laureate) seems to want to make us blush as instead of roses or cards, for Valentine’s Day, she gives us “an onion”. The exploration of this idea led on to discussions of the reality of love: that it is painful, difficult and often full of fear. Food for thought, indeed.

Yet, don’t despair. The English classroom is not without hope! Seamus Heaney writes about love and the loss of love in a much more Romantic fashion, comparing his feelings with waterfalls, flowers, faith in others and the excitement of new lands forming:

“Did sea define the land or land the sea?

Each drew new meaning from the waves’ collision.

Sea broke on land to full identity.”

His words suggesting strongly the idea that love can transform us as it takes us out of our element.

So I ask again, what can poetry tell us about human experience? How can knowledge derive from the writing of human experience? How can poets capture in words, the complexity of human emotion? If you can answer these questions then you’ll be a literature student, my friend.

Michael Watson

Head of English