Hitler, Churchill, Kardashian, and why we study poetry

A few months ago I was gripped by an almost existential question – why do we teach poetry. I call this existential because as an English teacher (in-training), teaching poetry was a large part of what I had chosen to do for the rest of my life. And yet, try as I might, I found it difficult to give a compelling reason as to why teaching poetry was important. That led me to a book (quite aptly I might add) titled “Why Poetry Matters” by Jay Parini. One of the reasons he gives is that poetry educates people in the art of the metaphor. But why is this important?

“The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” is a podcast I’ve recently been obsessing over. In one of the episodes there is a conversation between the host of the show, Mike Cospur and Joshua Harris. They’re talking about the phenomenon of celebrity. Harris makes an interesting observation that Churchill is famous not just for his virtue and persona, but also because of his speeches. He could manipulate words. In a sense, that is what Kim Kardashian does today. Although it is not always words – it could be images, video, and so on. In a sense, she is famous through the way she manipulates social media and Television, as Hitler and Churchill manipulated through their speeches and radio. In short, words are powerful. They can be used to manipulate people in ways that transcend times.

If we dig deeper into this question, we can ask why is it that words are so powerful… Why is it that the proverbial pen is mightier than the sword? I think Parini’s book has an insight that might partially answer the question. He locates the power of language in the fact that an essential part of being a human is the ability to communicate. Speaking of humans, he says, they can formulate abstract notions, some of them profound. They frame laws and constitutions that define nation states and communities, articulate social norms, and make designs for living. News of what happens passes among them swiftly in language created for such a purpose. They communicate intense personal feelings and attitudes, forming alliances of one kind or another. As all parents know, language plays a huge role in the replication of the race itself and in the way children are brought up. In short, the narratives or the stories we tell ourselves play a huge part in our identities. This is why we get so defensive when we encounter words or stories that question the narrative we hold on to – we feel that our very identity is being attacked. And that is why expert communicators can manipulate us – by manipulating the words, or the symbols of communication.

To once again go back to the question I began with – why should I teach poetry. I think poetry is important because it teaches us the power of words. Or as Jay Parini says, “because it refines our ability to make comparisons, to understand how far one can ride a metaphor before it breaks down.” Like when politicians plunge nations into illegal wars because of dangerously inept metaphors. Or when TV shows preach that only a life of glamour and wealth is a life worth living!

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