A heartfelt answer I hesitate to show my student

9th May 2008 at 01:00
"Why do we have to study this?" It's the question that every teacher must have heard 100 times over

"Why do we have to study this?" It's the question that every teacher must have heard 100 times over. "Because it's on the syllabus," I might have replied when faced with it in class the other day. But that is to give an answer as banal as the question.

The objection this time round was to the study of poetry as part of an English course. As the student had actually signed up for an access course in social care, I suppose some might think she had a point.

It was only later that I came up with a proper answer. At the time, I simply said "Good question", and moved on. But walking through the hills one evening at sunset and watching a blood-red sun do battle with invading storm clouds, I realised the answer was quite simple: there are some people who simply shouldn't study poetry.

It's certainly not the subject for those who see life purely in terms of black and white. If shades of grey are too painful to contemplate, then poetry is not for you. If life is only to be about tangible things and how they relate to one another, about transactions and work and a pound being worth a pound, then poetry is not for you.

If all that matters is fact and bland opinion; if you are content to live your life in your own humdrum skin and never walk a mile in another's moccasins, then poetry is not for you. If there is to be no reflection, no dreaming, no grandeur, no feelings, no looking up at a mountain and being dwarfed by it, or down into a microscope and feeling like Gulliver in Lilliput, then poetry is not for you. If you never strive to reach the heights, or risk descent into the depths; if life is to be perpetually lived in the soft, safe centre of mediocrity, then poetry is not the subject for you.

I could go on in this vein. The real question is this: will I have the bottle to show the above to my questioning student?

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