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Tuesday 27 November 2007

Poetry and Dross

How well film makers understand the power of music to arouse emotions! Would 'Psycho' or 'Jaws' have terrified audiences or built up such suspense without music? Would a tragedy be half so tragic without the heart-rending score? Shakespeare knew it, centuries ago, 'if music be the food of love' and isn't music still necessary to create the ambience of parties, restaurants or socials gatherings. A supermarket manager once told me that when the shop is empty, slow music is played to encourage customers to browse the shelves more carefully. When they want to hurry people through the check-out, a faster tune is played. (It's fun to try to walk against that music...to go slow to the fast tunes and vice versa!). Music can communicate so much, so quickly like a scent or facial expression.

Perhaps the closest that words can come to music, is through poetry. T.S. Eliot wrote that "Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood." Children learning the beautiful rhythmic echoes of The Lady of Shalott grasp the essence of the poem long before they understand all the vocabulary; Lear's "The Courtship of the Yongy-Bongy Bo" or Lewis Carrolls Jabberwocky make no sense at all, yet the sound of the words is like a kind of memorable music and there is beauty in the language which natural appeals to the deepest, finest feelings within us, in much the same way as beautiful music. As Coleridge wrote, "poetry is the best words in the best order". Isn't the purpose of poetry to express in the most beautiful way possible, the most beautiful and deepest emotions, or to capture the most beautiful moments, scenes or experiences - to put music and art into words, and in this way to elevate the thoughts to the aesthetic and profound.

Why is it, then, that many a school syllabus compels students to study so-called 'poetry' of violence, of ugly language creating ugly impressions? It has been said that some of these poems -describing family disputes, crime, joyriding (what joy??), unpleasant relationships - are supposed to be more accessible to children and because they reflect real life experience they are easier for students to understand and empathise with. What arrogance it is to assume that children lack the ability to appreciate beauty or to understand the meaning of a poem because the language is unfamiliar; or to assume that ugliness is more appealing to young minds than the aesthetic and profound. What even greater arrogance it is to suppose that if someone grows up among violence, hearing only ugly language he/she is incapable appreciating beauty! When poetry, like music, can raise us to our highest self, our best thoughts, and our deepest feelings and our sense of empathy with, rather than separation from, the rest of humanity, and when there is such a wealth of beautiful literature available to us, it seems a sacrilege to feed young minds on dross.

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