Inspired by Moyers and conversations about the death of literature, April 30. 2013
From: Bill Moyers, The Language of Life: A Festival of Poets
When I was a schoolboy our teachers required us to memorize poems. By copying the lines over and over, I excelled at the sport. But it was only a sport. The works I had committed to memory were divorced from meaning or emotions. I knew the poems but not the experience of them. Only later, when a series of English teachers gifted in Elizabethan theatrics began to read serious poems aloud in class, did I hear the music and encounter the Word within the words. Now love truly became “a red, red rose;” “the rod not taken” proved to be haunting; and I knew for certain that it is indeed wisdom “to follow the heart.” Poetry that entered the ear traveled faster to the “upper warm garrets” of my mind than poetry perceived by the eye. I continued to value the architecture of a poem in print, but as Maya Angelou has said, “poetry is music written for the human voice.” Hearing’s the thing, and poetry readings are concerts of sheer joyous sound. In the words of Octavio Paz, “When you say life is marvelous, you are saying a banality. But to make life a marvel, that is the role of poetry.”
No less a figure than Adrienne Rich has worried aloud about poetry’s banishment to the margins, “hoarded inside the schools, inside the universities.” She sees this exile as a form of censorship that “goes hand in hand with an attitude about politics, which is that the average citizen, the regular American, cannot understand poetry and also cannot understand politics, that both are somehow the realms of experts.”
We kill poetry by not living the poetic life in our homes and our classrooms. While David does not believe that literature will ever die out, I think we can do much to arouse it from its slumber, or arouse the slumbering from their unpoetic lives. Of course, a part of the reason some are smelling death is because there does exist some putrefaction of the intellect as schools bury students in a curriculum that is morbidly about job training and little of anything that is truly vivifying.
Those who care about literature cannot just sit back and teach literature but must become politic enough to change the world so that it is a place where the poetic is a regular part of life.