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Northrop Frye on the Importance of Poetry in the High School and Elementary Curriculum


The first thing that university teachers want to know is: what is important in the preuniversity study of literature? Most of us, when we complain about our freshmen, base our complaints on the theme of information or memorized knowledge: our students don't know enough; they haven't read enough; the chronology of literature is a vague haze in their minds; some of them could hardly distinguish Chaucer from Tennyson except by the spelling, and so on. But if students don't have enough information, it is a simple enough matter to supply it or provide the sources of supply. The trouble is that what they learn they learn within a mental structure of habits and assumptions, and university comes much too late in a student's life to alter that structure. For example: many students come to university assuming that convention is the opposite of originality, and is a sign that a poet is superficial and insincere. If they are writing poetry themselves, they are apt to get bristly and aggressive about this assumption. They can't be writing in a convention that all their friends are writing in: they must be conveying unique experiences, because their poems say that they are. Here is a result of illiterate teaching that makes the most scrambled nonsense out of all literary values, yet nothing can really be done about it. We tell them at university that literary sincerity is quite different from personal sincerity, that it can only be developed by craftsmanship working within a convention, and that it is the function of convention to set free the power of expressing emotions, not to provide formulas for ready-made emotions, though it may do this for dull writers. They listen; they understand; they may even believe; but the effect on their mental habits is very like the effect of schoolmarm English on the little boy: "Dar ain't no 'ain't you', is dey'? It's I aren't you', ain't it?"

Or, again, I am at an educational conference listening to a speech by a high authority in the field. I know him to be a good scholar, a dedicated servant of society, and an admirable person. Yet his speech is a muddy river of cliches, flowing stickily into a delta of banalities at the peroration. The content of the speech does not do justice to his mind: what it does reflect is the state of his literary education. It is not that he has never read good literature, for he has the literary tastes that one would expect a cultivated man to have. But he has never been trained to think rhetorically, to visualize his abstractions, to subordinate logic and sequences to the insights of metaphor and simile, to realize that figures of speech are not the ornaments of language, but the elements of both language and thought. And because his main scholarly interests lie outside literature, he has never been compelled to make up for these deficiencies himself. The result is that he is fluent without being articulate, and cannot break out of an armour of ready-made phrases when he tries to express his real convictions. Once again, nothing can now be done for him: there are no courses in remedial metaphor.

The greatest fallacy in the present conception of literary education is the notion that prose is the normal language of ordinary speech, and should form the centre and staple of literary teaching. From prose in this sense we move out to utilitarian English on one side and to the more specialized literary study of poetry on the other. Few subjects can be more futile than a prose-based approach to poetry, an approach which treats poems as documents, to be analysed or summarized or otherwise translated into the language of communication. The root of the fallacy is the assumption that prose represents the only valid form of thought, and that poetry, considered as thought, is essentially decorated or distorted prose. When we suggest that young people try writing poetry, what most of them immediately produce are discontinuous prose statements about their emotions, or what they think their emotions ought to be, when confronted with the outside world. This is not merely because they have been taught to read poetry as a series of statements of this kind - "all that guff about nature," as one freshman expressed it - it is rather that they assume that all verbal expression derives from the attempt to describe something, and that poetry differs from prose, as a mode of thought, in being an attempt to describe subjective emotions.

The main principles of a coherently organized curriculum are simple enough, but very different from the one just mentioned. Poetry should be at the centre of all literary training, and literary prose forms the periphery. In a properly constructed curriculum there would be no place for "effective communication" or for any form of utilitarian English. We still have textbooks on effective writing produced by people who have no notion how to write, mainly because they are trying to be effective about it, but one hopes that the market for them will disappear in our time. The styles employed by journalists and advertisers are highly conventionalized rhetorics, in fact practically trade jargons, and have to be learned as separate skills, without much direct reference to literature at all. A literary training is a considerable handicap in trying to understand, for example, the releases of public relations counsels. I am not saying this just to be ironic: I am stating a fact. I remember a New Yorker cartoon of a milkman who found the notice "no milk" on a doorstep, and woke up the household at four in the morning to enquire whether he meant that he had no milk or that he wanted no milk. I suspect that the milkman was a retired teacher of English: certainly he reflects the disadvantages of being sensitive to the nuances of expression. A literary person confronted with most of the verbal technologies of our time is in the position of a genuinely intelligent student confronted with an intelligence test which grossly oversimplifies its categories and calls for an arbitrary choice of half-truths. He is sure to fail the test simply because he is more intelligent than the creature who designed it. The primary function of education is to make one maladjusted to ordinary society; and literary education makes it more difficult to come to terms with the barbarizing of speech, or what Finnegans Wake calls the jinglish janglage.

The connections of literature are with the imagination, not with the reason, hence the ideal in literature is one of intensity and power rather than of precision or accuracy, as in science. There can be no intensity without precision, but to aim directly at precision is trying to seize the shadow. Poetry is one of the creative arts, in the context of music and painting, or rhythm and pattern. The rhythmical energy of poetry, its intimate connection with song and dance, is the elementary basis of its appeal, and the primary aspect of it to be presented to children, along with its affinity with the concrete and the sensational, its power of making things vivid by illustration, which has traditionally been expressed in the formula ut pictura poesis. I am certainly no expert on the teaching of children, but it seems obvious that all such teaching has to follow the child's own rhythm of thought and development, and not project on him some half-baked adult mystique, whether that mystique claims to derive from the anti-intellectual left or the anti-anti-intellectual right. And it is clear that children recapitulate, as we should expect them to do, the experience of primitive literature, and turn most naturally and easily to the abstract and conventionalized, to riddles, conundrums, and stylized jingles. The authors of The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren quote an unremarkable verse:

Mrs White had a fright
In the middle of the night,
She saw a ghost eating toast
Half-way up the lamp post

and append the comment of a nine-year-old critic: "I think what's so clever about this is the way it all rhymes." Later, in speaking of the child's fondness for tongue twisters and multiple puns, they remark: "It takes children a long time before they cease to be amazed that one word can have more than one meaning." One would hope that this amazement would last the rest of their lives. The speech of a small child is full of chanting and singing, and it is clear that the child understands what many adults do not, that verse is a more direct and primitive way of conventionalizing speech than prose is.

This principle, that the physical energy and concrete vividness of verse should normally be presented earlier than the more complex and adulterated rhythm of prose, affects the training in both reading and writing. It is difficult to know how a child thinks, but it is less difficult to know how he talks, once one has gained his confidence, and how he talks might afford an educational clue. Any child who has talked to me has addressed me in an uninhibited stream of burble for which the nearest literary counterpart is the last chapter of Ulysses. This chapter has no punctuation, and neither has a child's speech. Surely in teaching writing one should begin by trying to channel this free current of verbal energy and start giving it some precision as it goes along. To teach a child to write as though he were deciphering something from linear B, proceeding from word to phrase, from phrase to sentence, from sentence to paragraph, is to ensure that what he eventually writes will be a dead language. Good writing has to be based on good speech, and good speech is a logi cal, though complex, development from natural speech. It is a striking feature of our culture that so much creative activity in literature, as in music and painting, should be either explicitly academic or explicitly resistant to education, a culture either of Brahmins or of Dharma bums. In Canada these two aspects of literary culture have reached a curious schizophrenia in which a constant polemic against academic poetry is carried on by poets who are nearly all employed by universities. It seems to me that the source of the feeling that education inhibits spontaneity may be somewhere in the region I have just indicated: in the reversal of the natural rhythms of thought and expression which a prose-based literary education is only too apt to produce.

from The Stubborn Structure by Northrop Frye (Metheun 1970).