Tag Archives: teaching

Should Poetry be “Relevant”?

Yesterday evening, my friend and I fell into a discussion concerning poetry. This came about as a consequence of me mentioning that I am in the process of producing a further collection of my own work.

During the course of our conversation, my friend mentioned that “poetry should be relevant”.

I responded that Keats great poem, “Ode to a Nightingale” (https://poets.org/poem/ode-nightingale), remains as relevant today as when the poet composed it. I said that the poem deals powerfully with the themes of beauty, life and death, and continues to resonate with the 21st century reader due to the fact that it touches on the human condition.

My friend acknowledged that “Ode to a Nightingale” is a wonderful poem. However he said that Keat’s work was written for an educated elite and was not read by ordinary people.

It is undoubtedly the case that at the time of the poems composition few “working class” people possessed the ability to read and write. Consequently “Ode” was (by and large) appreciated by an educated (and often wealthy) reading public. To acknowledge this self-evident fact does not, however imply that we ought to embrace the contention that “poetry should be relevant”.

Every poem is, of course relevant to the poet who puts pen to paper, (he would not have composed it where this not the case). A poet feels love, sadness, despair, sorrow, happiness (or a myriad other emotions) and feels impelled to compose a poem. In the moment of composition his poem is “relevant” to him and usually remains so throughout the remainder of his life.

However the power of a great poem lies in it’s ability to transcend time and place. From the early 19th century Keats “Nightingale” speaks poignantly to people of all social groups today. for the themes of life, death and beauty are as “relevant” to 21st century man as they were to the man or woman of the 19th century. Unlike the early 19th century, in the 20th (and 21st centuries) education is (in the developed world at least) now widespread, which enables people of all backgrounds to appreciate more complex poetry. I say “more complex”, for humans have always enjoyed poems, whether of the nursery rhyme variety, baudy verses or Homer’s “Odyssey” and “Iliad”. The latter were of course (originally) recited from memory so were accessible to people of all social stations. Therefore Homer, who is considered by some as “elitist”, was not viewed in this manner when his great works enthralled the ancients, when recited to the assembled populace.

We do, I believe need to be wary of assuming that because someone grows up in a tower block where the lifts rarely (if ever) work and gangs roam the estate, that they need (if, indeed they need poetry at all), to read poems about people living in similar circumstances to those in which they find themselves.

If an individual living in the circumstances described above writes poetry, she may well compose poems about gangs, drug dealers and other issues which often plague run down estates. Her work may possess literary merit (or it may not). However it should not be argued that her work is (due to it being based in gritty reality) more “relevant” than “Ode to a Nightingale”.

Of course the work of the poet living on a badly maintained estate is as “relevant” to her, as was Keats “Nightingale” to the poet as he sat penning it on Hampstead Heath. We should not, however jump to the assumption that merely because a person comes from poor circumstances that they are, somehow incapable of appreciating Keats, Shakespeare or Wordsworth. Through good teaching people of all kinds can (and should) enjoy our rich literary heritage, for it belongs to all of us. Certainly it is easier for the child growing up in a household full of books to gain an appreciation for the literary arts. But its by no means impossible for the girl or boy growing up on a poor estate to do likewise. Ultimately great art does not only transcend time and place, it also goes beyond social class and touches the hearts of us all. This is why I dislike the word “relevant” when applied to the appreciation of literature.

Learning Poetry By Rote

An amusing article concerning the merits of learning poetry by rote, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2260419/Ill-vote-learning-poetry-rote.html. (The author is not in favour of said practice). As one of the commenters states, in the comments following on from the piece, much of the poetry I can recall is that from which I derived pleasure, for example Dowson’s “They Are Not Long The Weeping And The Laughter” and Beloc’s “On An Election”.

As someone or other once wrote:
There was a young Man called Moat
Who learned a poem by rote.
It was somewhat long
And concerned a thong
Or perhaps it was a goat!

Should only black teachers teach black children about slavery?

Some time ago, I came across this post, https://solifegoeson.com/2017/12/20/white-teachers-who-teach-black-kids-about-slavery-piss-me-off/. I commented, however as my comment was not published I feel compelled to state my opinion here.

In the above post the author argues (essentially) that white teachers should not teach black children about slavery because they (the teachers) do not understand the experience of non-white people (the prejudice faced by those who’s skin is black). At the end of the post the blogger does recommend that one way forward is for those who teach to come from a greater diversity of backgrounds. However the whole tone of the article is hostile to the concept of the teaching of slavery to black children by white teachers.

I am not black. I am, however disabled (I am registered blind). Throughout history disabled people have faced discrimination. This discrimination manifested itself in various forms, including the forced sterilisation of those with disabilities on eugenic grounds. Eugenics reached horrific heights during the Third Reich when Nazi doctors, SS officers and nurses murdered the disabled under the T-4 programme. Indeed the use of gas was first employed on the disabled prior to it being used to exterminate approximately 6 million Jews (men, women and children). You can find out about Action T4 here, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aktion_T4.

I don’t, as a disabled person, (nor as someone who holds a degree in history and politics) argue that only disabled people are capable of teaching about the T4 Programme. To argue thus would be narrow minded on my part. Yes, as a disabled person I face difficulties and (on occasions) discrimination not encountered by non-disabled people, however those possessing empathy/those of goodwill can understand (and teach) about such matters.

It concerns me that if we carry the argument promulgated in the above article to its logical conclusion, that only disabled people will teach about disability related matters, only women will lecture on the discrimination faced by women throughout the ages etc. This risks leading to a closed academic environment, one in which I don’t wish to live.

Should Poets Explain Their Poetry?

How far (if at all) should a poet explain his (or her) work? I have always been of the view that poets should leave it to the interpretation of readers to determine what their verses mean. To explain all risks treating readers like young children who must be spoon fed. Furthermore, detailed explanations by the poet remove the joy experienced by many lovers of poetry of reaching their own conclusions concerning a poem’s meaning.
Recently, 2 people have expressed the view (on 2 separate occasions in face-to-face conversations) that explanations as regards a poem’s meaning (or what caused me to write it) would be helpful. During the 2 occasions on which I have given poetry readings, I have included a brief explanation concerning the poem’s origins. However I remain of the view that to furnish chapter and verse in respect of a poem’s meaning detracts from the enjoyment of reaching one’s own (often unique) conclusion. One gentleman with whom I discussed the matter suggested that notes could be appended to poems concerning their origin and/or meaning with a caveat that those who wished to come to their own conclusion should skip them. While this is an interesting idea, I don’t want to turn into a didact, I am, after all a poet not a teacher.
As always I would be interested in my reader’s views.

Kevin

The Guest – A Guest Post By Victo Dolore

Many thanks to Victo Dolore for the below guest post. If you haven’t already checked out Victo’s blog please do so. She writes with humanity and humour about the medical world and so much more, (https://doctorly.wordpress.com/).

 

 

The Guest

 

The headmaster was standing at the back of the room in his brown suit and brown tie, his arms crossed somberly across his chest. He was a serious man who

never joked, never smiled.

 

I was nervous just looking at him.

 

It was my second grade class and it was the end of the school year. My teacher, Ms. White, held a sheaf of those wide ruled tan colored notebook papers

stapled together in her hands, turning each page slowly as she read from the podium at the front of the class.

 

They were my papers.

 

It was my story.

 

I stole another glance around the room. My classmates watched her with rapt attention, eyes growing wider. They were there in the story, I could see it!

 

There were dwarves and a wizard and a cave filled with treasure and scary monsters that clung to the dark shadows. I knew the secret, though. It was going

to end up with good winning out over evil. Just wait, I smiled to myself.

 

As she read the last words there was silence. More silence. My heart stood still as the seconds ticked by. Then… everyone clapped, even the somber, frightening

man at the back of the class.

 

He smiled at me!

 

I had never been recognized by anyone as being good at anything to that point. My handwriting was always awful. I read aloud too fast. My clothes were

old, worn hand-me-downs. Mathematics was a mystery to me. I was quiet as a mouse, never speaking, always invisible.

 

And so from that day forward I wrote every chance I could get.

 

I will never win any literary award. I will never have a huge audience. But when I put pen to paper I find my voice. The magic weaves its way through my

fingers, taking over…

 

Thus began my love affair with words.

Teaching Computers How Not To Forget Is The Answer To Building Artificial Intelligence

An article in The Atlantic which argues the achievement of artificial intelligence is impossible until we can teach computers how not to forget. Humans learn new skills while retaining old ones. Computers in contrast tend to forget easily.

To me one of the major factors (perhaps the most significant factor of all) which separates human intelligence from that of computers is that we humans are conscious beings who understand the reasons for our actions. Of course there are those who behave in ways which demonstrate crass stupidity but this does not, in my view invalidate my contention that we are different from machines in that we possess the ability to comprehend. Computers and robots can learn and their ability to do so is increasing. However they can not, unlike humans comprehend the reason for such learning. They are not self-aware.

Even if we can teach a computer not to forget will this lead to true artificial intelligence? In my admittedly unscientific view (my degree is in history and politics, not science) the answer is no for to have true intelligence one requires consciousness and the ability to comprehend/analyse one’s own actions.

 

For the article please visit http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/04/teaching-a-computer-not-to-forget/389727/?utm_source=SFTwitter

Sir Smasham UP By E. V. Rieu

At school I had a wonderful teacher, Mr Delacruz who, along with my grandfather kindled in me a love of literature. I remember Mr Delacruz’s classroom as being piled high with books, volumes tottered on storeroom shelves. For me, as a small boy entering his classroom was akin to visiting Aladdin’s cave.

I recollect him reading aloud to we children. He even made a recording of several stories and poems for me including Conan Doyle’s The Speckled Band and Alfred Noye’s poem The Highwayman. One poem from which I derived particular pleasure was Sir Smasham UP by E V RIEU, (http://monologues.co.uk/Childrens_Favourites/Smasham_Uppe.htm). For a reason which shall forever remain clouded in mystery, the first few lines of Rieu’s humorous poem popped into my head this morning,

“Good afternoon, Sir Smasham Uppe!
We’re having tea: do take a cup!”

and I determined to look up this childhood favourite. If you have children, grandchildren or are acquainted with children in any way I recommend introducing Rie

Something Lurking

Lurking in the headmaster’s office, the unspeakable punishment which awaited we unruly boys and girls. A thing joked about, part of school mythology but, deep in our subconscious we half believed (feared) that it was real.

I can not recollect, at this distance in time, from whence this fantastical object which aroused such terror mingled with glee in the minds of we children came. Perhaps it was the headmaster himself who first mentioned the existence of the thing. Equally plausibly it may have been one of us children who invented the instrument of punishment in order to strike fear into the hearts of his fellow pupils.

“If you are very bad you will get the …”.

I smile, removed as I am in time from my school days, at the remembrance of the ultimate punishment. No one, to the best of my recollection ever experienced or admitted to having experienced the full force of the headmaster’s displeasure. I among others received the full force of his wrath expressed in tones which brooked no opposition. We stood outside his office not daring to speak for fear of arousing the fearsome power which lurked within.

What was it which inspired such dread? and dread it we did despite our protestations to one another that such a thing could not possibly exist. Was it the swish of the bamboo prior to it bringing out welts on our unhappy legs and arms?

Imagine the most homely of objects, a slipper. Grandfather sitting by the fire in carpet slippers drinking tea or maybe smoking a pipe. Warm red slippers, now there is nothing to alarm one in such a homely sceene. Ah, but wait a moment what if grandfather in a fit of anger at the misbehaviour of his grandchild where to remove one of those homely objects, bend the child over his knee and slipper him? Not such a benign object then.

In our case it was no ordinary slipper we boys and girls feared. It was a slipper of demonic proportions, one possessed of an inner life which would deliver a slippering never to be forgotten by it’s unfortunate recipient. We feared, my dear reader the electric slipper.

Now I have no idea whether the slipper plugged into the mains or whether it was operated by batteries, none the less the demon slipper was the talk of the dormatories, the malign presence, always lurking just out of sight but waiting to wreak a terrible vengeance on anyone who aroused the ire of the headmaster sufficiently.

Did I and my fellow students really believe in the existence of the electric slipper? It was, largely a school myth designed and perpetuated by we boys and girls to add a frisson of excitement to the relatively humdrum existence of school. However I well recall passing by the headmaster’s office as night fell and feeling a shiver at the thought that something terrible might, just possibly be lurking inside.

School Days

A row of basins, cold and clinical in their perfection of pure white. Carbolic, it’s scent floating down the years, pungent, smelling of boarding school.

The scent of freshly polished floors. Teachers scolding girls who trip along in high heels

“You will ruin the floor. Those shoes are unsuitable”.

Polish, carbolic, the smell of food wafting from the refectory.

An institution functioning like a well oiled machine? The bullying in dark corners. Teachers generally kind but lacking eyes in the back of their heads.

Baths in the communal bathroom, the scent of vim (now called jiff I think). Water running down plug holes, getting dry thence to bed.

Lights out. Children whispering.

“Who’s talking?” the voice of the house master booms. Silence,

“OK you can all stand outside in the corridor”.

We stand a sense of pride that no one told tales. Sometimes, shame to say one of we boys would crack and, pointing the finger at such and such would escape the corridor only to be ostracised by our peers for “being a grass”.

Sometimes happy, other times sad, oh distant school days.

School Days

Distance blurs memories. A small hut in the school playground. Me, alone listening to the rain. Half content in my solitude but fearing/hoping they will come.

Did I believe that I would be collected by the teachers or was it a clever ruze to get the other pupils to go away, leave me to the rain and solitude?

Never part of the collective whole, the herd of boys and girls. I sought the solitary hut but yet was half in love with the clamour of the playground. To belong, to be part of the happy mass. Drawn to the multitude and yet repelled by it. Wanting to belong but knowing the difference, the chasm which separated us.

Where you happy my peers, shouting and playing in the great playground? I played also, pushing the big metal truck. It stopped suddenly, the sharp edge cut my right shin, the scar is with me still. Yes I played but, try as I might was never truly one of you. Did I want to be? Yes, no, perhaps. I am confused, bemused memories play tricks distance befuddles my recollection of the past.