There is a parable of a passer by who encountered three workmen cutting stones on a vast building site. He asked them what they were doing. The first said that he was cutting stones to a certain shape and size, the second that he was going to build a wall, and the third that he was building a cathedral. Without meaning to denigrate the chiseler of stones or the erector of walls (they know that their tasks are necessary and are not ashamed of them) I find myself drawn to the third reply. Its sense of vast possibilities in a humble task, and the optimism that underlies such a conception, are salutary and inspiring.
I ask myself what I might be doing when I teach poetry. A simple - and perhaps the most honest - answer is that I am pleasing myself and thereby, I like to think, my students. This is not as frivolous, not to say irresponsible, an answer as it might seem. For now, however, I would rather not dwell on the merits of doing something for its own sake, and the pleasure that this brings. There are also solid aesthetic, linguistic and moral reasons why one might want to explore poetry in a classroom. For the purposes of this essay I would like to embed poetry in a question concerning human relationships.
Recently I came across these lines, ascribed to the German composer Franz Schubert. He says,
No one feels another's grief,
No one understands another's joy.
People imagine they can reach one another.
In reality they only pass each other by.
This is a bleak view of human interactions. But it put me in mind of a verse, similar in length and in style, that I learnt in primary school. It is the first stanza of a song:
No man is an island,
No man stands alone.
Each man's joy is joy to me,
Each man's grief is my own.
This reads like a companion piece to Schubert's lines, though it could hardly be more different in what it implies. A more evocative version is to be found in John Donne's poem from which the opening line appears to have been borrowed. Donne begins:
No man is an island,
Entire of it itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
Then he goes on to say, strikingly: 'If a clod be washed away by the sea, / Europe is the less.' And he returns to this idea is a more personal way, by claiming, 'Each man's death diminishes me, / For I am involved in mankind.'
The question is - who is right, Schubert or Donne? Are human beings separate or connected? Are we irredeemably isolated, in spite of our webs of relationship, or are we linked inextricably by our common humanity? The evidence provides no simple answer. However it is a question worth holding, as I hope to show, when we consider the scope of poetry in a classroom.
In the first two of Schubert's lines quoted above he speaks of feeling another's grief and understanding another's joy. Why is there this distinction with regard to grief and joy respectively? Are the words 'feels' and 'understands' used interchangeably? Whether or not, it seems to me useful to distinguish between them. I would suggest that understanding another is different from, and possibly less than, feeling with another.
'Empathy' is a term that spans both understanding and feeling. In fact one dictionary defines it as 'the ability to understand and share the feelings of another'. But there is a paradox in this definition. What does it mean to 'understand and share' feelings? One might understand concepts and events, or why someone feels in a certain way. But what is it to understand feelings themselves? Feelings, like music, are of a different order.
It seems that the closest one can come to 'understanding' a 'feeling' is to experience it oneself. It might even be true to say that there is no way to understand a feeling without, in some sense, having shared it. If so, my dictionary's definition of empathy contains not so much a paradox as a redundancy: to understand another's feelings is to share them. But what is it to share feelings? Not merely to recognize that the feelings exist, nor even to sympathize with them, but to actually share them? Can this happen at all?
The limitedness of our own experience, and the degree to which our feelings have been 'educated', might well determine the extent to which, and the circumstances in which, we are capable of empathy. We are, however, gifted with imagination. We also possess the extraordinarily rich legacy of work by creative artists, poets among them, who have felt deeply and been able to translate their feelings into artifacts that continue to move us. I would suggest that these play a role in educating our feelings because they stimulate our imaginative experience of them. By educating the feelings I mean, with an eye on the root meaning of 'educate' (which lies in 'educare': to lead out) the drawing out of them. To educate the feelings is to make us aware through experience that they exist.
This leads me to look afresh at the teaching of poetry. The bedrock of poetry is feeling, and it seems to me that poetry can, over time, educate our feelings in the sense in which I have defined the phrase, and thereby nurture empathy. This is true not just of poetry, of course, but of all literature - and of the arts generally. I shall, however, confine myself (more or less) to poetry.
First I would make the general points that literature extends the range of our experience and that it establishes the universality of experience. Donne's poem sets this out, when he says that each man's death diminishes him. The poem concludes, poignantly, 'Therefore, send not to know / For whom the bell tolls, / It tolls for thee.' Hemingway borrowed these lines as an epigraph to his novel set in the Spanish Civil War (the penultimate line supplies its title). His purpose may well have been to show that brutality and war are terrible wherever they happen, that man's need for companionship and love persists regardless, and that the loss of freedom anywhere diminishes freedom generally. Thus a creative work extends well beyond its immediate context.
A similar sort of extension happens whenever we are moved by another's experience. My dictionary clarifies that to be moved, in this sense, is to be provoked into 'a strong feeling, especially of sorrow or sympathy', a sort of transference of feeling that is clearly related to empathy. In real life it tends to be diluted by factors such as, to name only three, the humdrum nature of most events, some prior knowledge or experience that hardens us, and, commonly, some reluctance to get deeply involved in the life of another. More can be said about all of these, but two general points will suffice.
The first is that all the three stated factors reduce the 'exercise' of our own feelings and might, in the long term, cause them to atrophy, or, in any case, to be buried under layers of indifference that become increasingly difficult to penetrate.
The second is that our feelings are sometimes more intensively engaged by a work of art than by the 'real' world. This happens both because art concentrates experience for us - by eliminating the quotidian or by showing us that the 'quotidian' is remarkable in its own way - and because, to put it uncharitably, it engages our feelings without necessarily engaging our commitment. Our emotions are stirred, they spill into our real lives with sudden intensity, but the experience is usually pleasurable and transient.
Nevertheless, the experience can stir us deeply. In the movie 'The Pianist' based on the real life survival of a Jewish pianist in war torn and Nazi occupied Warsaw, there is a scene where the fugitive is discovered in his hiding place by a German officer. The officer clearly disbelieves his claim that he is a musician and asks him to play on an upright that happens to be in the abandoned house. This is probably the climactic moment of the film. The pianist, unkempt and near starving, fearful for his life, sits at the out-of-tune instrument, and begins to play. You see the pathos of his existence reflected in his eyes, though he seems increasingly unaware of his situation, abandoning himself to his playing, while the officer's face is inscrutable but seems to soften. It is as if all the suffering and desolation that the pianist has been through and witnessed finds expression in that scene, in a music that establishes a connection between sensitive individuals on opposite sides of a manmade and apparently impassable barrier. At that moment, it seemed to me, the music carried the burden of all individuals who have, through time, been victims of their fellow men. But it also carried, implicitly, the relief and 'redemptiveness' of expression, a point that I shall return to; by 'redemptiveness' I mean not quite redemption, but a movement towards it.
A movie makes use of a panoply of effects to bring about an epiphany of this kind - sensitive acting, stark visuals, evocative music, and so on - but it seems to me that poetry, with quieter and possibly a more limited range of devices at its command, can also do much the same thing. Wilfred Owen's poem 'Futility', for instance, is a poem whose subject is a 'still warm' casualty of war, a man who was once woken habitually by the sun, so that, as the first of two stanzas concludes, 'If anything might rouse him now / The kind old sun will know.' The tenderness of these lines offsets the horror of what has occurred. But the second stanza reiterates its cold finality: 'Are limbs…too hard to stir?' (i.e. by the sun that has awoken all life) so that the poet finally asks, with something like indignation - or is it despair? - 'O what made fatuous sunbeams toil / To break earth's sleep at all?' The significance of the poem lies not merely in the question with which it concludes, stark as this question is, but in the fact that even if the sun can do nothing to stir the young man, prematurely and so pointlessly dead, something in the poet himself has been awakened by what he has seen, and because he is moved so profoundly he finds words that touch us as well. This stirring of both artist and audience mitigates, to some extent, the horror, because it makes us emotively aware, as Owen phrased it, of the 'pity of War'.
Poetry arises out of a response, a deeply felt response, to life. The poet is moved by something and is attentive not only to the thing itself but to his own responses to it. The poem seems to emerge from a dynamic interplay between the two, an interplay that is so importunate that it drives the poet into articulating it. In fact the interplay often takes place through its articulation. Perhaps this is merely to restate Wordsworth's dictum that poetry is 'the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings'. But I would emphasize the alertness, the attention and the capacity to respond which together ensure that there is indeed something to overflow.
However, the poem that results is also a crafted object, what Auden, perhaps slightly but not entirely tongue-in-cheek, called a 'verbal contraption'. Poetry, like other creative forms, is a craft that demands the practice and mastering of diverse technical skills. Possibly the skills are more accessible than those involved in, say, film making or the composing of music, but if poetry is to be good it demands a conscious process of shaping that makes for coherence and beauty. This work is primarily at two levels: there is the need to translate a response, an emotion, something felt and observed, into thoughts that are faithful to it, or at least as nearly faithful as possible (a process akin to Wordsworth's 'recollection in tranquility'); and there is the business of articulating the thoughts effectively, of finding the best possible arrangement of words for them. The two levels are not necessarily sequential: they often happen simultaneously, but taken together, to borrow a telling phrase from Seamus Heaney, they allow the poet to 'raid the inarticulate'.
In other words, poetry is a matter of both heart and head. Arising out of this there is a third point: the finished poem is impersonal. A poet is implicitly concerned with examining experience, perhaps drawing lessons from it and universalizing it. This happens not so much because the poet consciously philosophizes, as because the act of unraveling a complex of thought and feeling takes the poet to levels of perception that run deeper than the accidents of personality. Thus a chord might be struck in any sensitive individual who encounters the poem.
One is saying, then, that while it arises from a closely observed individual response, a poem is an intelligible artifact whose appeal is universal. It seems to me that the teaching of poetry should enable students to experience the 'process' of poetry; to experience, that is, the process that underlies it, by, in some sense, emulating this process. Just as a Math teacher would not only teach students how to solve problems but might also give them the experience of what it is to 'do' Mathematics (for instance by requiring them to attempt open ended investigations) a teacher of poetry can approach it in a manner analogous to the writing of it.
How might this be done? Poetry begins, as I have said, in observation and response. Students should first have the opportunity to respond to a poem directly, to encounter it without having been fed much information about it. They should be asked, as they read or listen to a poem, to also listen, inwardly, to their own responses to it. These initial responses are valuable because they generally are authentic. Students must be encouraged to express them - 'I like this part…', 'This is a contradiction…', 'This is stupid…', 'I don't understand this…', 'This reminds me of…' and so on. The discussion of the poem should emanate from these responses, and the alert teacher will find ways of both addressing them and bringing in whatever else she feels is necessary to appreciating the poem.
Just as the poem examines and shapes response into something intelligible, the discussion of the poem should enable students to examine and ar ticulate their own responses - to test them, to understand how they arose, and to refine their expression. The students must be taught how to weigh evidence and how to substantiate their impressions. This requires not only close attention but as rigorous an application of reasoning as in law or Math. The examining of poetry must begin in feeling, however inchoate this might be, but shouldn't remain woolly. It needs to mediate between subjective responses and dispassionate analysis. It must, like poetry itself, involve both heart and head.
But a poem is not merely a coherent amalgam of feeling and thought: it is also a beautiful object, made deliberately so by the poet's craft. Whatever the subject of a poem, the act of shaping experience into a well formed entity is inherently concerned with beauty, for instance in achieving harmony between its constituent elements. Among other things, as Coleridge put it, a poem is 'the best words in the best order'. It is important for a student to understand how this is so.
It is also important for a teacher to explore, with the student, why this is so. This is not to imply that the creation of something beautiful needs justification; only that it seems essential for students not to see the beauty of perfected form as mere self indulgence, secondary to the Grand Themes that teachers sometimes cloak poetry with. Students must be enabled to discover that a poem's aesthetic and technical features - its structure, imagery, rhythm, and so on - are central to what it communicates, not peripheral. Poetry is not philosophy dressed up in finery.
There is another aspect to this, which is what I have referred to as the 'redemptiveness of expression'. The question arises how it is that in difficult times a poet can be concerned with creating something beautiful. Much poetry - like other forms of creative expression - arises in extremis, when the artist is going through personal turmoil or when things seem to be disintegrating around him. Is it not perverse, or morally bankrupt, to write, paint or compose at such a time? It might be, of course, but it seems to me that when expression is true to the poet's experience, it is both natural and necessary. At a certain level it provides relief when feelings are painful. But why such expression should acquire form and beauty requires a more careful answer. Azar Nafisi addresses the question succinctly (in her book 'Reading Lolita in Tehran'): 'Every great work of art…is a celebration, an act of insubordination against the betrayals, horrors and infidelities of life. The perfection and beauty of form rebels against the ugliness and shabbiness of the subject matter.' A little earlier she has said that in the great works 'there is an affirmation of life against the transience of that life, an essential defiance.' Whatever the experience that underlies it, artistic expression makes an implicit stand, not politically (politics makes for bad poetry) but aesthetically, on the side of existence. A poetry class must serve as an occasion for students to begin to understand that great art is not incidental to the life of man. It is redemptive, and when it is stifled by censorship or repression, mankind is, in Donne's sense of the word, diminished.
Poetry, then, provides an opportunity for students to respond, with all their faculties - sensory, aesthetic, emotional and intellectual - held in balance. It becomes thereby a means of refining the sensibility, of sensitizing the student so that she is able to distinguish between emotionalism and deep feeling. Her capacity for imaginative understanding, for empathy, is stimulated by fine instances of its expression. In other words, her feelings are being educated.
It is possible that some of this refinement will inform her everyday life, at least to the extent that a quality of attention to her own responses enriches her relationships with people and objects. It might enhance her ability to experience.
another's feelings, through her imaginative understanding of them, and thereby make her less prone to judging people by quirks of behaviour. It might also make her more capable of responding actively to the various crises that afflict the world, because if she can feel the ugliness of environmental degradation, the sad absurdity of poverty in a world so full of resources, or both the pity and horror of war, it might make her more likely to act than if she relates to these issues merely through her intellect.
It might make for a more compassionate society, in which individuals truly feel 'involved in mankind'. It might, of course, do none of these things! Some words of caution seem necessary here. We do not completely understand how or why our feelings are touched. Nor can we create an agenda for the teaching of poetry, in which empathy and compassion are regarded as well defined goals. An attempt to do so would move against the current of poetry (which is at its finest open ended rather than agenda-driven) and is likely to founder on its own self consciousness, not to say its self righteousness. We are speaking of latent possibilities in the teaching of poetry, while remaining humbly and cannily aware that these possibilities might not always, or ever, be realized. Even if they are, we might not know it. Further, there are experiences other than that of great art that can touch a person's feelings radically, even transformatively. Life teaches us more than art, though it is possible that art can make us more receptive to learning from life.
In the teaching of poetry it seems necessary to hold the two quotations in the epigraph to this essay in a dynamic balance. Pope's playful irreverence about his own breed is not only a corrective to any placing of poets or poetry on a pedestal, it also reminds us that enjoyment, a quality of appreciative delight, is central to the poetic experience. This is perhaps especially true where young students are being exposed to poetry. On the other hand, as we've seen, poetry is potentially far reaching, and much may be lost if it is approached in a perfunctory manner. Though we might hesitate to use it ourselves, we need not be altogether dismissive of Shelley's use of the word 'legislators'.
It seems to me that this balance between legislation and absurdity is held with delicacy in the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska's poem 'Poetry Reading'. It is a short poem in which the poet humorously (with the despairing refrain, 'O Muse') bemoans the fact that boxers enjoy large and raving audiences, while she has to 'start this cultural affair' (her public reading) for an audience of twelve, who are divided evenly between relatives and seekers of shelter from the rain outside. This is how the poem concludes:
In the first row, a sweet old man's soft snore: he dreams his wife's alive again. What's more, she's making him that tart she used to bake.
Aflame, but carefully - don't burn his cake! -we start to read. O Muse.
I am struck by the understanding and gentle irony with which the poet regards the old man snoring in the first row. She is able to imagine her way into this widower's dreams, and there is, it appears to me, some tenderness in her concern to not disturb them. She is not indignant that at least one twelfth of her audience is deaf to her words. Her response to the old man will provide matter for another poem. But now, in spite of the size and quality of her audience, she is impelled ('Aflame') to start to read. We are shown empathy at work, as well as the artist's determination to do what she must, regardless of the world's indifference. She is the legislator of her own destiny; and her situation, of reading to an unenthusiastic audience, is slightly absurd - as she recognizes. A combination of seriousness and absurdity is perhaps endemic to the human condition, but the capacity to express it and to laugh - or at least to smile - at it, is redemptive. I would want students of poetry to experience this.
To return, finally, to Schubert and Donne. Who was closer to the truth, regarding human relationships? It seems to me that the issue here is empathy. Where it is absent we do, as Schubert's lines suggest, pass each other by in mutual isolation. But we also know what it is to feel deeply and to be touched by another's feelings, which implies that these capacities might be enhanced. The experience of great art - including poetry and, incidentally, music (it is surely ironic that those lines are Schubert's!) - can help establish a connectedness between people, because it touches us at levels where our apparent differences do not matter. It seems worthwhile, therefore, to attempt building an edifice founded on empathy, for which the chiseling of stones can begin in the classroom
Siddhartha Menon teaches English and Mathematics at Rishi Valley School. He has also worked at Nachiket near Uttarkashi and at the Rajghat Besant School in Varanasi. He is an alumnus of Rishi Valley School.