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On Poetry and Education Abroad

May 25, 2023
by Michael Woolf

I have nature and art and poetry, and if that is not enough, what is enough?
- Vincent Willem van Gogh (1853-1890)

Poetry is the shadow cast by our streetlight imaginations.
- Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1919-2021)

Hierarchies of the Arts

When we talk about poetry, we tend to assume a voice of respectful solemnity, as if poetry requires a level of seriousness not necessarily obligatory in discussions of other writing. Failure to do so is akin to laughing loudly in the British Library. Levity, it seems, is not good manners.

This reflects an implicit hierarchy in creative works. Thus, grand opera requires an expression of sublime concentration (even from those of us who have no idea of what is happening and fight soporific boredom throughout the interminable ritual). Similarly, audiences at classical music concerts behave with serious restraint and formality. Everybody dresses up, especially the band (that's the wrong word; it's an orchestra)!

During the performance, it is not possible to order another drink, chat to your companion, or even to pull out the crime thriller you were enjoying before the music interrupted. This is not done! Etiquette requires that the music should be experienced in semi-comatose immobility.

In musical performance, jazz nestles very low in the hierarchy of solemnity. I've spent a lot of my checkered life in jazz clubs. In a concert hall, you have to know when to clap. It is not done in the middle of a movement (whatever that is) even though the musicians stop playing for a bit. Clapping a solo in a jazz club, in the middle of a piece, is the norm. And you can get a drink, tell your companion that they look nice, wear what you want, as indeed do the musicians.

The audience's experience is different. You don't feel like you're in church.

The same kind of hierarchy applies to drama. In a theater, however inept the script, directing, or acting, a play invites gravitas. On television, a play rarely attracts the same level of critical respect. The career of playwright Dennis Potter (1935-1994) is instructive. From the mid-1960s to the early 1980s, Potter wrote a series of innovative, challenging, dramas, almost exclusively for television. By way of contrast, over a similar period, Harold Pinter wrote important plays for the theater and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Both, I would contend, made significant contributions to British theater. Pinter has an international reputation, and his plays, which have acquired "classic" status, are frequently performed. In 2011, London's Comedy Theatre was renamed The Harold Pinter Theatre. Dennis Potter's television dramas are rarely shown and barely remembered. The imbalance of critical attention is essentially a matter of context. Drama on television is seen as intrinsically less significant, regardless of content.

Poetry occupies the same artificial status as opera, classical music, and theater: an ethos of elite art. This sadly obscures the ways in which poetry might enrich the experiences of students abroad, both as a means of engaging with alternative perspectives, and as an outlet for personal expression.

What Poetry Can Do

I have met some wonderful poets in my life, a few in person and many more in my mind. Some of these have occupied my heart and head for many years. Many of them have had much to say that is relevant to our work in international education.

Education Abroad and the Healthy Disrespect of Alexander Pope

The Grand Tour, at its height of popularity in the 18th century, was a popular rite of educational passage, mostly for wealthy young men from England. For one to two years, they explored the great cities of Europe often accompanied by a tutor. The ostensible intent was to reveal the roots of Western civilization so that, a cynic might argue, they could more effectively exercise their power and privilege on return. They also brought back art and artifacts that would expose the rest of us to the creative wonders of Europe.

According to the poet Alexander Pope (1688-1744), however, they acquired more than might have been intended. The impact of international experience on privileged young men is seen in a rather skeptical fashion in The Dunciad (Book IV, 1743):

Intrepid then, o'er seas and lands he flew:
Europe he saw, and Europe saw him too.

Pope points to the sensual pleasures of Europe to which the participant is exposed:

To happy Convents, bosom'd deep in vines,
Where slumber Abbots, purple as their wines:
To Isles of fragrance, lilly-silver'd vales,
Diffusing languor in the panting gales:
To lands of singing, or of dancing slaves,
Love-whisp'ring woods, and lute-resounding waves.

A lack of serious purpose is signaled in the verb "sauntered":

Led by my hand, he saunter'd Europe round,
And gather'd ev'ry Vice on Christian ground...
The Stews and Palace equally explor'd,
Intrigu'd with glory, and with spirit whor'd;
Try'd all hors-d' uvres, all Liqueurs defin'd,
Judicious drank, and greatly-daring din'd;
Dropt the dull lumber of the Latin store,
Spoil'd his own Language, and acquir'd no more;
All Classic learning lost on Classic ground.

The explorations of these participants take them to places of ill-repute ("stews") where they enthusiastically overindulge in the pleasures of the flesh. What they learn is "ev'ry Vice on Christian ground."

Pope's humor is an antidote to pomposity and reminds us not always to believe all the things we say about ourselves. For much the same reason, I recommend a regular dose of Mark Twain's Innocents Abroad:

The people of those foreign countries are very, very ignorant. They looked curiously at the costumes we had brought from the wilds of America. They observed that we talked loudly at table sometimes...In Paris they just simply opened their eyes and stared when we spoke to them in French! We never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language (1869).

Going Nowhere is OK Too

There are other poets who help us moderate the hyperbole that litters our discourse. There is an inclination to suggest that education abroad is, in some way or another, a necessary component of a well-rounded education. This is bad news for the circa 90% of American graduates who, for one reason or another, have not studied abroad. On a global scale, it is even worse news for the vast majority who have little or no opportunity to benefit from studying outside their own country.

Education abroad is one of a number of factors that enrich student experience. Marketing imperatives require us to pay minimal attention to the myriad of other signifiers that contribute to success. If we argue that international education is essential to the creation of an enlightened citizenry, we would also be obliged to assume that, as more and more students study abroad, the world necessarily becomes better informed, a wiser place: a historical delusion on a massive scale.

Knowledge and wisdom are not dependent on seeing worlds elsewhere. Pope's traveler demonstrates that it is perfectly possible to travel widely and learn nothing at all. Conversely, it is perfectly possible to go nowhere and become rich in mind and consciousness.

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson (1830-1886) exemplifies this truth. Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, and rarely left the town. Even then, her travels were brief. Washington, D.C. is recorded as the farthest she traveled. She left home to attend Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (now Mount Holyoke College) in nearby South Hadley but left after one year. Her answer to an invitation to attend a literary event in 1869 was "I do not cross my Father's ground to any House or town." The paradox is that, as she became increasingly withdrawn, her mind traveled into areas of thought and modes of expression that exploded the boundaries of poetic convention.

In four lines, Dickinson demonstrates an empathy for others that speaks directly and eloquently to contemporary international conditions:

These strangers, in a foreign World,
Protection asked of thee -
Befriend them, Lest yourself in Heaven
Be found a refugee.

She reminds us that the connection between wisdom and mobility is not inevitable. There are those who went nowhere but achieved profound insights. There are also, sadly, those who live transnational lives but appear to have been untouched by empathy or understanding.

Dialogues in History: Patriotism

There are voices who have redefined consciousness. By way of example, two poems describe military disasters. They represent a transition from Victorian patriotism to, some 60 years later, a profound alteration.

"The Charge of the Light Brigade" is a poem written in 1854 by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892), the Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom at the height of Victorian patriotism. It describes a disastrous assault on Russian defenses by British troops during the Crimean War:

Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred...
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of hell...
When can their glory fade?...
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred!

Tennyson translates the pointless sacrifice of many lives into a myth of heroic sacrifice.

Just over 60 years later, Wilfred Owen (1893-1918), as a serving soldier, wrote "Dulce et Decorum Est." A clear distinction is between Tennyson, the observer, and Owen, the participant. Soldier poets in World War One undermined the notion of the nobility of patriotic sacrifice:

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge...
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!- An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime...
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning...
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs...
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

The old lie is that celebrated by Tennyson. It is a translation of a Latin phrase from the Roman poet Horace: "It is sweet and fitting to die for one's country."

World War One saw the death throes of the Victorian belief in connection between progress and technology. Victims of the industrialization of death, Owen and the other soldier poets tell of:

the truth untold.
The pity of war, the pity war distilled

Strange Meeting (1918)

Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) was known for his patriotic commitment to the British Empire. He encouraged his only son John to enlist duringWorld War One and arranged a commission for him with the Irish Guards. John's death led Kipling to consciousness that resonates with Owen's; myths of heroic sacrifice are discredited; the older generation has betrayed the younger with the rhetoric of old lies:

If any question why we died,
Tell them, because our fathers lied.

Epitaphs of the War (1919)

Dialogues in History: Nature and the City

William Wordsworth's (1770-1850) inspiration came from the natural world. A key figure in the Romantic movement, with the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), his perspective is exemplified in "Daffodils," written between 1804 and 1807. Nature offers sanctuary and joyful beauty in a troubled world:

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
"¦ oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye"¦
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

However, Wordsworth also lived in a period of intense industrialization and urbanization. While he drew inspiration from the natural world, he also embraced an alternative aesthetic. In the city of London, he celebrates the work of man in the construction of the original Westminster Bridge (built between 1739-1750):

Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
"¦Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!

Composed Upon Westminster Bridge (1802)

Wordsworth indicates that alternate notions of beauty may be found within the streets and avenues constructed by man. In this respect, his perspective embraces both traditional sources of inspiration from nature with a modernist view of beauty in urban spaces wherein "Earth has not anything to show more fair."

I am aware that there are many other examples of poems that could be used to illustrate shifts in consciousness. I am also aware that I've been discussing the poem as literature and that we are, thus, still in the area of "specialist" interest.

The randomness of this selection is meant, however, to be more than personal indulgence. It illustrates that poetry can play a significant part in education abroad as material for study. In addition, as a means of personal expression, poetry can help students translate the environment abroad into subjective landscapes, a means of owning space.

Poetry and the Student

Poetry is crystallization of thought, emotion, vision. Poetry on the page has become, for some of us, a specialized art form. It invites the reader to silent contemplation and concentration. To see poetry as a mode of communication for students we need to reconfigure that context, to move the poem out of the concert hall and into the jazz club.

Poetry, song, and performance are interconnected in some obvious ways. The tradition of poet as performer has been restored through poetry readings. More to the point, song lyrics are a form of poetry relayed through the conjunction of voice and music. This is hardly a radical proposal. The Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to Bob Dylan in 2016 "for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition" (Nobel Prize Committee). Song is poetry set to music. Exposing students to lyrics as poetry demystifies the form.

There may be something intimidating about asking students to be "poets." However, we regularly ask students to take notes- to record personal responses to stimuli. That process is a means of translating what is external to inner consciousness, a first stage in the creation of poetry.

A priority then is to demystify the role of poet and poetry. Free verse, liberated from the tyranny of rhyme, empowers students to record thought without restraint of formal conventions.

The American poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892) offers some guidelines:

Beginning my studies the first step pleas'd me so much,
The mere fact consciousness, these forms, the power of motion,
The least insect or animal, the senses, eyesight, love,
The first step I say awed me and pleas'd me so much,
I have hardly gone and hardly wish'd to go any farther,
But stop and loiter all the time to sing it in ecstatic songs.

Leaves of Grass (1881-1882)

Whitman proposes a focus on the personal significance of small things encountered. He also points to the need for time and space for introspection: to "stop and loiter."

He defines poetry as a mode of thought that transcends consistency, empowering students to record the ambiguities encountered without the need to create artificial cohesion out of diversity:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

This then is what a student might do, to use words instinctively, to capture experience free from the obligations of academic convention. Whether this form of poetry is written to share with others matters less than the process. It offers a creative alternative to a camera shot or a selfie as a way of recording impressions and emotions. The replacement of an artificial lens with the filter of individual consciousness enables students to own their own space and experience.

An analogy may be drawn between photos and drawings. Photos are machine generated. Drawing requires intense seeing and studying space. Poetry also engages a conjunction of senses: looking not just seeing; listening not just hearing. These are acts of sensual concentration.

In short, poetry can be used in at least two ways: as an art form to be studied for special insights; or as a personal record, a means of introspection, communication that may or may not be shared: a snapshot of sight, sound, emotion, memory.

We do not need to judge, control, or evaluate all the things that students might learn abroad. We do not need to always be the experts. There is value in empowering students to be the author of their own experience, to develop their own voice, and to expand their vision of the worlds they encounter.

The words of Jim Morrison (1943-1971), singer, poet, songwriter, resonate with these aspirations: "If my poetry aims to achieve anything, it's to deliver people from the limited ways in which they see and feel."

Michael Woolf is the Content Creator - Blogger.
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