|Reasons for Reading Poetry / A.E. Housman Poem
from The Discovery of Poetry by Frances Mayes (SFSU author of Under the Tuscan Sun)
“The study of poetry proves to be excellent training for the mind. Poetry is the language art. Learning to see precisely how words work teaches you how to come closer to what you want to write, whether it's a newspaper article, a law brief, a cost estimate, or a letter home. The ability to hear the literal level of what a poem is saying, to discern a tone of voice, to learn why one poem is interesting and another is not, to pick up suggested meanings, to see the logic of the imagination all are valuable analytical tools. By studying poetry element by element, you learn to synthesize these components into a whole appreciation. Apprehending the range of a poem is a skill that transfers directly to any intellectual consideration or work in which analysis and interpretation are needed. Consider these more personal reasons for studying poetry.
We look to art for clues about our lives. When you take a walk at night, lighted windows are irresistible. You see a child setting the table, a vase of wildflowers, a stack of books on a chair; all these sights form a quick glimpse of how those mysterious others behind the glass live their lives. At a more complex level, we ask the poem, the painting, the piece of music for these glimpses. The most natural question we ask of a work of art is "What does it say about life?"
All art, no matter how "serious," involves a sense of play. As children, we easily enter the spirit of make believe and accept temporary worlds. We pretend we are pioneers or explorers; we follow our imaginations on marvelous journeys. Samuel Taylor Coleridge called this process the "willing suspension of disbelief." As adults, we abandon much of our sense of play. Yet we still enter temporary worlds when we yell at a soccer game or swim meet, cry or applaud at a movie, or get caught up in a friend's story. For a while we forget the immediacy of ourselves and go with the witnessed experience. Like child's play, poetry lets us enter other worlds. We are imaginatively placed in contexts different from the ones in which we live. The ability to "suspend disbelief" and enter the world of a poem is a primary pleasure. Active reading empowers us to participate in more than we possibly can experience first hand. After reading the poem, it is as if we have had the experience ourselves. Poems can also change an experience by imaginatively naming or extending the feeling or thought.” (end of Mayes material)
Poem for In-Class Discussion
Carefully consider the Housman poem below, taking notes. Think about the words used here, about what’s being said literally as well as what’s being suggested figuratively. (Definitions for italicized words are in parentheses.) What does this poem suggest to you? What do you infer from it? What’s so curious about this poem? Don't read it lightly; there's lots here you may miss.
Could Man Be Drunk For Ever
Could man be drunk for ever
With liquor, love, or fights.
Lief should I rouse at mornings, (willingly)
And Lief lie down at nights.
But men at whiles are sober, (at times)
And think by fits and starts,
And if they think they fasten
Their hands upon their hearts.