Thursday, August 02, 2007

Learning Poetry



I was pleasantly surprised yesterday to stumble upon (on the net) a publication by the UNESCO, gathering the views of poets from across the world on the subject of the teaching of poetry to school students.

Reading and Writing Poetry: The Recommendations of Noted Poets from Many Lands on the Teaching of Poetry in Secondary Schools. Editor Richard W. Halperin, UNESCO, Paris, 2005, in English, French and Spanish. The English version is accessible here (1.3 MB).

44 important poets, from 25 countries, in 5 continents, were asked about the best ways to present poetry to secondary school students. The poets were asked 5 questions:

How would you like to see the purpose of poetry presented to adolescents?

How would you want teachers to differentiate poetic language from prosaic language? Are there teaching methods to stimulate the use of poetry by adolescents to express or understand thematically or emotionally difficult subjects?

How might teachers help motivate young people to visualise images created by poetic texts and cultivate attention to the use of imagery in poetic expression?

How can teachers help students at the secondary school level use poetry to sharpen the understanding of the difference between subjective and objective perception?

Are there any methods used in your country of birth or residence which you personally find effective for the teaching of poetry to secondary school learners which could be used equally well in other parts of the world?


This has ramifications that go beyond “poetry”. How can one help to bring out, like a gardener, all kinds of faculties and sensibilities in a child?

There was no one from Bangladesh, or from Bengal in India, in the UNESCO report’s list of poets – I think Bengali-speaking people must have the largest ppm (poets per million) in the world. But there was Ishfaque Ahmad of Pakistan, who are also a people quite in the sway of poetry, in Urdu and Punjabi, and with towering poet-sage giants from the distant to recent past.

The late Ishfaque Ahmad, authored several plays, novels and short stories in Urdu. I have felt that poetry is a mass phenomenon in the Urdu language, that is unmatched even in Bengali. So it was indeed edifying to read what he had to say. He begins his response by noting:

“For centuries, the poetry in my part of the world (Pakistan) has been a teacher of basic human values and a source of inspiration.”

I am looking forward to studying this report. Though quite a voracious reader, I had never been interested in poetry. But I could not help being susceptible to quite a few phrases, lines or verses, resounding or poignant, entering and staying in my consciousness. And then with the opening of my inner life I found myself subject to poetic imagination and expression. If I remember correctly, Ramana Maharishi had said that the mystic is one who dwells in mythic poetry.

The same inner life that awakened my poetic consciousness also led me to working in Priya Manna Basti, a slum in Howrah, among poor, Urdu-speaking Muslims. I felt that the community here proved that Urdu poetry and literature is not an elite pastime, it is part of the life and thinking of large numbers of people from very humble, labouring backgrounds. And this is not something involving merely passive appreciation, but rather connotes a process of nurturing of certain superior sensibilities, values and attitudes - a bent of spirit, a bearing - on the part of the genuine lover of Urdu poetry and language. Poetry is not a specialised, exotic fancy of some, but part of the mental universe of many.

Through the poetic imagination are the fundamental questions of life, society and the universe sought to be understood. For today’s world, mired in unending conflict and despair, and throwing up fundamental questions, about survival, peace, dignity and justice, it is only through the imagination, i.e. poetry, that the answers can be found.

1 comment:

irving said...

You said:
"Through the poetic imagination are the fundamental questions of life, society and the universe sought to be understood. For today’s world, mired in unending conflict and despair, and throwing up fundamental questions, about survival, peace, dignity and justice, it is only through the imagination, i.e. poetry, that the answers can be found."

This is really true, sad as the world sometimes seems, the real answers to the the fundamental question are found in the imagination, through poetry for one, and fiction, and art, in the "humanities" which is a good name for them :)

Ya Haqq!