Opinion: the current system privileges the 'study' and not the experience of poetry, favouring words and intellectualism over sensations

Poetry can't be taught. When asked about what poetry is, most people's answers refer to poems: something that’s about words and rhyme, written ages ago, something to memorise, to analyse, to study. Something to learn for the Leaving Cert.

In conversations with my college students, as well as family and friends, there’s a general feeling that our experience of poetry in school was rarely rewarding or inspiring. In responding to my question about poetry in their school days, some say they never did it out of enjoyment, that it was something they 'had’ to do and 'learn for what it was’.

There was always a right or wrong answer about poetry, and they didn’t have any freedom when engaging with it. ‘We didn’t know what writing a poem felt like’, says one of them – young enough to have done their Leaving Cert no more than three years ago. Some were told, ‘if you can prove it, you can say anything about a poem’, while others were never allowed to express what they felt by reading a poem. It had to be about what was taught, what was in the curriculum and was going to be asked in the exam.

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From RTE Archives, Poet John F Deane on the need for a different approach to teaching poetry in schools (RTE Youngline Broadcast 25 January 1982)

Reviewing the English syllabus for the Leaving Cert, as well as the prescribed material for the English examination 2023, it seems like the current system privileges the ‘study’, and not the experience, of poetry. A glance at previous syllabi shows a similar trend.

A very small part of the curriculum is dedicated to covering a compulsory set of pre-selected poems about which actual questions with actual answers are expected to be tackled by students. What’s being done here has nothing to do with poetry and everything to do with standardisation and exams, which are the focus of Leaving Cert students at that time. Exams, not life. That’s the educational mantra. The reality of it. There is no question this is limiting for students as it favours words and intellectualism over sensations and experience. It’s thus not surprising to hear the kinds of opinions about poetry that they have nowadays.

This is, in short, what’s wrong with teaching poetry in school. For a lot of people poetry is about poems reflecting situations that are rarely relevant to them, and whose language is often remote and confusing. This has become a hindrance to facilitating a deeper experience of poetry. As a college lecturer in the performing arts I deal with this issue daily, from bachelor to doctoral levels. Schools teach and ask questions about poems. But where is the poetry? While powerful and essentially poetic, the poem is not the poetry.

Read more: Why it's time to reform Irish schools and scrap the Leaving Cert

Although poetry is traditionally associated with words, it is present as much in a piece of music as in a painting or a sculpture. It also transcends these forms of human manifestation: it’s there in the moonlight on the ocean, or in the blossoming of the cherry tree. Poetry is everywhere. But how can it be accessed?

Poetry is sensation, and it is boundless. It cannot be confined to a poem or to the study of poems – much less to a curriculum with soul-destroying learning outcomes. While poetry brings about learning, its outcomes are not measurable and don’t happen ‘at the end of the school year’. Whoever claims to study, explain or analyse poetry – or force others to do so – is condemned to spend their life trapped in a cage of empty words, a world of dead objects.

Poetry is truth, and it is knowledge as truth. The greatest minds seek it, but the simple ones have it at their fingertips. It is not bound by style, age or epoch: it resists labels or forms, and it is never about the past. Poetry is not exclusive of the poet either. So, if the poem is not the poetry, and poetry is not about the past, who is the poet then?

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From RTE Radio 1's Liveline, children discuss their favourite books, songs and poetry

Poetry is paying attention, introspection, the search for the source. It is observation, listening, silence. The poetic pulsates everywhere, inside and outside of us; and when we truly pay attention those pulsations move us. That’s why poetry is sensation. Awareness that transcends words. That’s why it can’t be taught. It can only be experienced.

Poetry is not information, and how can it have a place in the modern classroom if this continues to be used as a transactional space where information is exchanged, consumed, and often mis-represented, discarded or replaced? The accumulation of information is at the mercy of memory and, while a poem may be made of memories, poetry unfolds in the experience of life, and so it belongs in the here and now. Poetry is discovery, and that’s only possible if we forget.

If we were to properly introduce poetry in an educational setting, teachers would have to walk into the classroom free from their own conditioning, from the learning conventions imposed on them by a society of history and its privileged historical ‘needs’ – a society of conveyor belts. In other words, free from memory, from the past. And in that freedom, they would encourage their students to look into themselves and pay attention to what’s in and around them.

Read more: Can we test our children's creative thinking?

As John Andrew Rice (founder of the now extinct Black Mountain College) said: ‘students can be educated for freedom only by teachers who are themselves free’. And that freedom is poetry: empowering and transformative because it comes from within. Poetry is liberation and wisdom. It is only in the meeting of these two realms that we can restore its emancipatory place in education.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ