Posted by: Alexandre Borovik | May 11, 2008

Cognitive content of the study of poetry

Stephen Jones’ column in The Times Educational Supplement of 9 May 2008 (not placed yet on the newspaper’s website) caught my eye:

“Why do we have to study this?” It’s the question that every teacher must have heard 100 times over. [...] The objection this time round was to the study of poetry as part pf an English course. As the student had actually signed up for an access course in social care, I suppose some might think that she had a point.

So far so good. Stephen Jones starts to giving an excellent answer:

It’s certainly not the subject for those who see life purely in terms of white and black. If shades of grey are too painful to contemplate, then poetry is not for you.

Instead of stopping at that powerful point, Jones then descends into a quasi-poetic rubbish too banal to quote. In my humble opinion, the answer is very simple: learning and analysing poetry calibrates a student’s scale of grey between white and black — and maybe not only shadows of grey, but perhaps also all hues and  colours of rainbow. Poetry is about subtle variations of meaning, emotional charge, colour of a word printed in black on white; an ability to detect these variations is a very essential skill for life.

For a future social worker, ability to read the true meaning of the phrase “I am OK, thank you” is a very essential skill. An instinctive, innate, “emotional literacy” perhaps suffices for a face-to-face interaction (dogs are quite good at that — and without studying poetry). However, detection of the emotional state of a writer of a letter (and even worse, an  e-mail) requires  a certain cultural conditioning.

Unfortunately, poetry suffers at school because it is a classical example of teaching critirea. Interestingly, the same teaching of critirea that Bichenkov talks about in his article (still not translated, sorry).

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Responses

  1. “In my humble opinion, the answer is very simple: learning and analysing poetry calibrates a student’s scale of grey between white and black — and maybe not only shadows of grey, but perhaps also all hues and colours of rainbow. Poetry is about subtle variations of meaning, emotional charge, colour of a word printed in black on white; an ability to detect these variations is a very essential skill for life.”

    Your use of an analogy involving the colour spectrum is itself poetic! How could one understand such commonplace techniques in everyday language — even language on factual matters, such as your post — without having studied fiction and poetry?

    “For a future social worker, ability to read the true meaning of the phrase “I am OK, thank you” is a very essential skill. An instinctive, innate, “emotional literacy” perhaps suffices for a face-to-face interaction (dogs are quite good at that — and without studying poetry). However, detection of the emotional state of a writer of a letter (and even worse, an e-mail) requires a certain cultural conditioning.”

    Innate emotional literacy may be sufficient for recognizing the emotional states of others, but more is needed if we are to articulate these states. Last time I checked, dogs were not great at articulating emotional states.

    And, modern life requires not only the ability to recognize the emotional states of others, but also the ability to recognize and articulate our own emotional states. I know people who are skilled in one but not the other. Studying poetry and literature generally is very conducive to acquring these two capabilties.


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