In today’s world, the study of poetry is not always a high priority for teachers or parents. In the classroom, poems are picked apart simply for their mechanic literary functions, and often take a backseat to more “objective” areas of study like mathematics and science. And in the home, it is rare that parents will encourage the study of poetry for its own sake.
But the greatest benefit of studying poetry isn’t intellectual – it’s spiritual. By giving an experiential taste of the true, good, and beautiful, poetry makes us wonder – and by making us wonder, it opens to us the beginning of wisdom.
In this post, read HSP Middle School Dean of Academics Michael Verlander’s thoughts on why it is vital to read and know poems.
What is it to be “steeped in poetry?”
I did not really learn to love poetry until the last decade or so of my life. That may surprise many who know me, but it is the case. And as the fruits and transformative effects are countless, there was no turning back.
The Poetry of Natural Experience
I have learned that remedial education is necessary for many to live well; we must be steeped in the simple rhymes and songs of childhood, in the simple experiences and joys of playing and getting to know water, grass, trees, and creatures. Understanding blossoms later, as remembered images, words, or tunes continually lend shades of perception to experiences over time. Being an educator, I have long been acquainted with the notion that little children like nursery rhymes, sweet little stories, and easy-to-remember songs, but I also thought those were put aside once the more sophisticated intellect was awakened through quantifiable lessons (like math, science, or even spelling and vocabulary exercises).
“Art” is often categorized as unnecessary to education because it is not explicitly practical. But I have learned that poetry, combined with a healthy dose of life out of doors in nature, is possibly more practical than nearly any other endeavor because it roots us in reality. And if we are in touch with reality, we have the capacity to be in touch with our Maker.
Feeding Minds with the True, Good, and Beautiful
Even if your young ones are grown, everyone should be acquainted with Mother Goose and Peter Rabbit. Aesop’s Fables do wonders. Old folk songs tell us the stories of our forebears, of men and women who have worked and loved, suffered and lost, lived and died, found humble success or the secret of life in small joys. Epic poems recount the triumphs of valiant heroes. Once upon a time, kings had bards and poets as mainstays of their kingdoms; any piece of news or story worth telling was spread by word of mouth, memorized and repeated verbatim for countless years. The psalms of the Bible are poetry – why? Wouldn’t it be something if, instead of superficial pop music or commercial jingles that create obsessions with mediocrity, or obscene entertainments that inspire uncontrollable base passions, we all had the purer songs of old running through our minds? Though we fear the impractical or antiquated, we need men whose minds are fed by true, good, and beautiful notions of what life is. Wonder is the beginning of wisdom, after all.
So, memorizing poetry is a very good thing, and not a waste of time. I read aloud to my children at home, and we memorize poetry and learn songs together. I have spent most of my long commute to and from school these past years memorizing poems and songs. Some are short and some are long. A favorite of mine is “The Rainbow” by William Wordsworth:
My heart leaps up when I behold
a rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.
Michael Verlander earned his B.A. in Philosophy from Thomas More College of Liberal Arts and an M.T.S. in Theology from Holy Spirit College. He serves as Middle School Dean of Academics at Holy Spirit Preparatory School.