POETRY INSPIRES AN APPRECIATION of written and recited words; words which convey emotions and experiences, words which provide insights, inspire us and provide cause for introspection – soul searching – words which help us to come to terms with who we are and what we are doing here.
‘Free education? Huh, never heard of it!’
Education requires commitment. Education requires sacrifice. Education requires patience. Education requires diligence. Education requires humility. Education requires respect. Education requires care.
Education comes with inherent costs. None of it comes freely. And that’s excluding the logistics!
Even if tuition fees are subsidized, pupils, teachers and parents have to be prepared to pay these other ‘real costs’ of education.
In fact, the above requirements are precisely what some schools strive to provide as part of the higher standards of educational services and life skills training that they offer, thereby making them more costly for pupils to attend than other schools.
And most likely these schools are delivering a better prepared graduate into the world.
So it really is the non-material aspects of education that some parents end up paying for. (If you don’t believe me then read up on overseas school prospectus and look at their school mottos.)
In some of the more ‘advanced’ schools poetry is taught as part of their Literature curriculum. At these schools building an appreciation of poetry is actually seen as a worthwhile and even fundamental educational experience for their pupils.
And what about us in PNG, do we really have to cough up large sums of money or wait for a government subsidy in order to teach poetry, and thereby language and literature, at our schools?
Poetry is an exploration using language and literature; it is a search for better understanding, better expression; it is an emancipation of emotion; it is an appreciation of the human condition; it is meant for the education of our hearts.
Does this happen at all nowadays?
I recall two teachers, Mrs Turea Rupa and Mrs Elizabeth Fry, both of Gordon Secondary School (1993-95), one of whom introduced the idea of poetry and the other who actually bothered to get us to write some poems.
So I can say my year mates and I had some experience with poetry, but not as a serious part of the curriculum.
But shouldn’t poetry be a serious part of our school curriculum?
One of the problems with teaching poetry at schools may be the way it is approached as a minor part of a bigger subject called English which we just have to learn about, but which may not really help us later on in life.
Imparting an appreciation for the written words of poetry will be challenging from the start given this attitude towards it.
And just what kind of material would be used if this is the current attitude? Or do we suggest that any writing is good poetry and therefore any idea or expression is a good idea or expression and therefore we’ll accept and believe anything someone else writes. (No wonder our priests and politicians keep fooling us!)
Poetry as part of an educational curriculum is a tool to help students to think creatively and express what they feel at a very deep level. Is this not a fundamental learning objective that will help a student later on in life? (And by the way, that K5,000 Crocodile Prize money is doing some really good things for me).
Another problem with teaching poetry is that it can be extremely difficult if pupils are unable to relate to the poems, the type of poetry or how and what is expressed in them. In short, starting off with Shakespeare may not be a good idea.
Even the formally published poetry from university academics and/or recognized poets of other countries may also be unreachable to most audiences, so again this is not a very helpful starting point.
This is one of the best reasons why I believe The Crocodile Prize, PNG Attitude and the 2011 and 2012 Anthologies of PNG writing are such a great leap forward in sharing and promoting PNG literature; it’s our own stuff! (Other literary awards, such as the Tapa Awards, are not as well advertised or promoted.)
In my opinion, the PNG government and the Department of Education in particular should throw their arms around this national literary competition, The Crocodile Prize, and hang on to it for dear life, since their cruise ship MV OBE is sinking and the currents threaten to drag it out to sea. (Forgive my poetic license.)
But where else can we look for an enlightening and educational experience with words?
Poetry in song lyrics & music
How about song lyrics? They are poetry written to be combined with music. Most songs deal with human emotions just as poems do. As one wiseacre says, “Music is feeling then, not sound”. And just as in poetry there are many different genres of musical expression.
For example rap music is very strong in the use of rhyme and rap lyrics usually follow the song beat very closely, as with some poems.
Reggae and R&B uses a lot of slang and connotative expressions which is a common technique in poetry.
Alternate rock bands, at least in the good old days, were known for their unique and often powerful lyrics e.g. the line “Jeremy spoke in class today”, in the song Jeremy by Pearl Jam, which actually refers to a troubled school kid who takes out a gun in class and starts shooting his class mates.
And pop bands like U2 have a worldwide following mainly because of the type of song lyrics that they deliver and the ideas they express through their songs, apart from the classic guitar-works by The Edge.
School children can relate to music very easily. So this is one avenue where they may be accessible for educational enlightenment through this favourite form of entertainment.
But appreciating poetry goes beyond entertainment, which is the ultimate aim of music.
Reading and writing poetry facilitates for the reader or writer to think using his/her creative faculties – half their intelligence – to develop their own natural intuition, to search the world around them for what inspires them and to do some serious soul searching. And goodness knows we could use more of this from our kids nowadays.
In fact, an appreciation for poetry in this sense would contribute to a higher objective of any education curriculum; related methinks to the National Directive Principal of Integral human development.
Poetry in language & culture
Literature exists in many written languages but poetry is found in every language known to mankind, because it is primarily an aural tradition, i.e. poetry is meant to be recited to an audience.
Papua New Guinea has over 800 languages and mostly an oral tradition. The mind boggles at the amount of poetry and literature we may be able to generate. Yet we still have not even bothered to scratch the surface of this pool of traditional knowledge.
Two of the fundamental arguments provided for Outcome-Based Education were that PNG children needed to learn first of all in the language of their birth, and that children brought up in multi-lingual learning environments were ‘smarter’ than those who learned only one language. (It’s a real pity about the failures implementing the OBE system, and perhaps one that was coming our way anyhow.)
Well I cannot argue against these points because I may be biased, having had neither of these privileges.
Our own languages are a precious gift from our ancestors. Speaking those languages is a privilege, for it is the language in which our forbearers communicated their thoughts and emotions, and defined the lives that they came to lead, enabling them to survive for millennia.
As such a precious gift, I believe it is neither appropriate nor practicable (nor even preferable) to leave the responsibility of maintaining these ancient languages in the hands of the government education system of the day.
It is a fundamental responsibility of all the people of particular language group to encourage and foster the continuation of their language, through the arts and cultural activities they organise for themselves.
What other duty do we have to repay our ancestors for our present survival? And this is a key educational role that parents may play in the lives of their children (Duh, it costs nothing to learn your language at home!).
If people really do want their language to survive into the future, they should do something more active about it, rather than remaining the passive participants which seems to be the hallmark of all Melanesian people (that is until a crisis, when we just want to go on rampage).
There are simpler and much more direct ways in which we can continue to preserve our languages and culture if we would only put in the time and effort to do so. Every day use of vernacular is one way.
Back to poetry, which as an art form allows for the creative merging of languages into a single piece of literature? What about recitation of poems in vernacular languages?
What about interpretations and translations of traditional poems and songs or are we going to leave this kind of work to the Summer Institute of Linguistics? Then perhaps I’m mistaken about who is more qualified and who has the duty to do this sort of work.
It would indeed be a fascinating exercise to interpret and translate an English classic poem into a local dialect or vice versa, and in fact this sort of transformation is already common in songs and music. So why not do this in poetry classes in schools across PNG, or perhaps that’s too obtuse an idea?
Poetry in everyday life
Above all an appreciation of poetry adds quality to a person’s life that is more than an intellectual, cultural or emotional need. For poetry is of the soul.
Reading and writing poetry is an expression of our fundamental beliefs and desires and our experiences in life. Much religious text is in poetic verse. Song of Songs and Psalms for example, for why were King Solomon and King David moved to create poetry and music in their happiest and in their darkest moments?
An appreciation of classic and ancient poetry provides a view of history from different cultures. It is also instructive to find out that nothing much has changed about the basics of human life, although the language may be difficult to understand. For example, much poetry has been written about war and fighting but that hasn’t stopped it from happening anywhere and the World War I poems are still relevant today.
On the other hand reading contemporary poetry also keeps us in touch with other people, without having to go out there and delve into someone’s private life – a popular pastime of some – to find out what similar grief’s and what joys we all share in common.
Poetry is a fundamental part of our human lives and it should also be a fun part. Learning about poetry in school can provide skills in writing, reading and speaking that children can enjoy as a creative pursuit.
An appreciation for poetry can stay with us throughout life and add to the quality of life that we experience.
Poetry may play a practical role in our lives by using poetry in our schools to actively preserve our languages and culture, which are not all about singsings.
Sharing poetry can also build connections between cultures, between races and between otherwise divergent groups of people. In particular poetry can reach to younger audiences who already have a connection with the workings of poetry through song lyrics and music.
A poet’s journey is an educational field trip that lasts a lifetime. And it’s a free ride – at least money wise – for anyone who wants to come along.
I end this essay with a short poem about lost messages, which poems too often become. And what does it mean when the message is lost (or the messenger is killed)?
swollen with perspective
a tongue to rupture
Ink blots and such
for some to swab
but not for you
no, not for you
In your wisdom
so it seems.
hold no meaning
or thoughts would speak
all be silent.
Created 14 December 2006; published in The National writers’ forum, 10 October 2008