Science and Poetry

As a youth, I enjoyed poetry as much as any other red-blooded boy. Grade school reading of Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seuss gave way to more complex poems in middle and upper school such as those of Edgar Allen Poe, Robert Frost, and Ovid. Outside of school, I ingested poetry almost exclusively through music. Whether the lyrics of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, or The Cure actually count as poetry, they at least aspired to rhyme, meter, intertextuality and occasionally transcendence. Since poetry was a slippery thing to define, these too became models for me. As a musician I began to write songs which needed lyrics— poems I surmised. I wrote my obligatory love ballads, as both the poetry in textbooks and the rock legends I followed suggested that I should. Growing in Christ led me to appreciate the old hymns of the church as well as newer worship songs. I wove these patterns too into the lyrics that I would write.

These habits and observations confirmed for me that poetry, like fine art, had two great aims: God and
girls. It was about the mushy stuff that one couldn’t quite grasp. Poetry was designed to evoke feeling, a form of amusement—a repose from thinking. What poetry was distinctly not about was science. I was good at mathematics and science and so I thought myself well-rounded to be also interested in ‘poetry’. These were two separate realms, akin to Stephen Jay Gould’s non-overlapping magisteria.

This vision of reality worked well enough through my college studies of natural and moral science and
my early years of vocation. It was not challenged until seminary when one of my professors noted that an early twentieth century Russian Harvard sociologist, Pitirim Sorokin, thought differently about art. He held that instead of simply entertaining the masses, artists often led the way in culture. They at times apprehended major cultural shifts before they had begun. For Sorokin, this was true for all levels of art: statuary, painting, music, and architecture, to name a few. Of course this was also true of literature and poetry. I encountered for the first time what I had been habituated to miss. Literature and poetry could be about substantial things, concrete realities as well as the ineffable ones like God and love. Poetry was not mushy, or perhaps reality itself was. Others of my seminary professors reiterated that God could not be circumscribed by logical syllogisms and that love was an essential component to ontology. While I was primed to revision things, I had little sense of what this meant for my reading of Homer or Coleridge.

While I began to enjoy poets like Gerard Manley Hopkins and William Wordsworth more regularly, it was a Ken Myers’ interview with Mary Midgely that caused the scales to fall from my eyes. Midgely, an elder-stateswoman of British philosophy, had written a book entitled Science and Poetry, and the title itself was enough to arrest me, a science teacher. This short interview provided for me the missing link between words, numbers, and reality.1

Consider an example from Alfred Lord Tennyson to illustrate the deep interplay between poetry and science. In the mid 19th century Tennyson wrote In Memoriam. It is a long poem, and for that reason one I would have previously avoided.2 These lines from Canto LVI explore the relationship between God, man, and nature. (Hint: the phrase ‘a thousand types are gone’ in the first paragraph refers to the extinction of species, a topic of fresh concern in the 19th century.)

‘So careful of the type?’ but no.
From scarped cliff and quarried stone She cries, `A thousand types are gone: I care for nothing, all shall go.

‘Thou makest thine appeal to me:
I bring to life, I bring to death:
The spirit does but mean the breath: I know no more.’ And he, shall he,

Man, her last work, who seem’d so fair, Such splendid purpose in his eyes, Who roll’d the psalm to wintry skies, Who built him fanes of fruitless prayer,

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law—
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed—

Who loved, who suffer’d countless ills, Who battled for the True, the Just,
Be blown about the desert dust,
Or seal’d within the iron hills?

No more? A monster then, a dream,
A discord. Dragons of the prime,
That tare each other in their slime, Were mellow music match’d with him.

O life as futile, then, as frail!
O for thy voice to soothe and bless! What hope of answer, or redress? Behind the veil, behind the veil.

This poem yields a phrase, “Nature red in tooth and claw,” which perfectly encapsulates Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. The poem’s first lines also grapple with the justice of God in letting species go extinct.3 Will man suffer the same fate? Is man like the animals and his ‘spirit does but mean the breath?’ Only through competition and the survival of the fittest can nature continue, a nature as indifferent to man as to any other of her creations. This antagonistic striving seems horrific and ghastly but Darwin encouraged us to remember that it is only ‘natural’. Love is not ‘Creation’s final law.’ As surprising as it is to read such a profound apprehension of the moral significance of Darwin’s vision, it is also surprising to note that Tennyson wrote this nine years prior to Darwin’s Origin of Species and one year before Herbert Spencer, who coined the phrase ‘survival of the fittest,’ published his first book. As Tennyson’s poem had attained great fame, being lauded even by the Queen of England in 1862, Darwin himself had likely encountered it before penning The Origin of Species.

Men were toying with the idea of evolution and an impersonal nature devoid of God years before Darwin had proposed his mechanism. It seems that a number of people were eager to believe this vision of reality before it had any claim to a ‘scientific’ sense. Many had become convinced of man’s descent from a common ancestor with the animals before Darwin had suggested any manner of how it might occur. Even Herbert Spencer, who argued that he not Darwin was the real inventor of the theory of evolution, had first written of evolution’s moral implications in his 1851 book, Social Statics. This was six years before
he had suggested any technical details for it in his 1857 essay, Progress: Its Law and Cause. Interestingly, Spencer was himself adapting ideas from a poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who had written an unfinished essay, Theory of Life.

Many believe that Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection or some new synthesis arising from it shows that competition and ‘the survival of the fittest’ is a law and the only natural way of conceiving reality. But consider this perspective from The Non-Local Universe published by Oxford University Press, a book about the 20th century developments in natural science.

Darwin made his theory public for the first time in a paper delivered to the Linnaean Society in 1858. The paper begins, “All nature is at war, one organism with another, or with external nature.” In The Origin of Species, Darwin is more specific about the character of this war: “There must be in every case a struggle for existence, either one individual with another of the same species, or with the individuals of distinct species, or with the physical conditions of life.” All of these assumptions are apparent in Darwin’s definition of natural selection…

[But] During the last three decades, a revolution has occurred in the life sciences that has enlarged the framework for understanding the dynamics of evolution. Fossil research on primeval microbial life, the decoding of DNA, new discoveries about the composition and function of cells, and more careful observation of the behavior of organisms in natural settings have provided a very different view of the terms for survival. In this view, the relationship between the parts, or individual organisms, is often characterized by continual cooperation, strong interaction, and mutual dependence.4

As it turns out, competition and survival of the fittest do not have the law-like character that Darwin believed they did. Consider the finale to Tennyson’s poem.

Of those that, eye to eye, shall look
On knowledge, under whose command Is Earth and Earth’s, and in their hand Is Nature like an open book;

No longer half-akin to brute,
For all we thought and loved and did, And hoped, and suffer’d, is but seed Of what in them is flower and fruit;

Whereof the man, that with me trod This planet, was a noble type Appearing ere the times were ripe, That friend of mine who lives in God,

That God, which ever lives and loves, One God, one law, one element,
And one far-off divine event,
To which the whole creation moves.

Tennyson chose to believe in the law of love instead
of reducing all to “Nature red in tooth and claw.” The developments of the last thirty years in biology noted above may not provide a final definitive view of nature, but at least these developments help legitimize Tennyson’s choice to believe in a law of love over one of cold competition. They remind us to distinguish Darwin’s mechanism from his metaphysics.

But even Darwin’s mechanism cannot be left wholly untouched by the notion of poetry. For at its base poesy is about words. In the Mars Hill interview referenced above, Mary Midgely pointed out that ‘natural selection’ is itself a metaphor. Darwin and many of his readers were conscious of a device he used that I had missed in all my years of studying biology. Darwin is likening nature to a human animal breeder using ‘artificial selection’. While animal husbandry has an ancient heritage, the English of Darwin’s time would most likely associate animal breeding with the intelligent artificial selection of English dog breeders. Dogs had been bred all over Europe to exhibit an impressive variety of traits. Darwin thus extrapolated from what was done by human intelligence and artifice with dogs. He imagined that nature could do likewise with enough trial and error with all species—even to the point of originating new species. It made no matter that strong cases of this had not been technically ‘observed.’ Dogs are all one species and yet some of Darwin’s technically distinct species of finches interbreed similarly to dogs. Overlooking the difficulty
this poses to defining the concept of species, the metaphor of comparing nature to a human breeder carries much of the weight.5 Detractors of Midgely claim that metaphors
in theories such as Darwin’s are just window-dressing, but Midgely asserts that these devices and metaphors are much more central to scientific theories than most realize. They often determine both formally and informally the direction a theory will take.

This raises the question of the general role of words within scientific theories. Nobel Prize winning scientist Sir Peter Medawar noted, for example, that hypotheses themselves are acts of the poetic imagination. Interestingly, he claimed to have gleaned this insight from the poets Shelley and Coleridge.6 Thus, as I teach physics students about Electricity and Magnetism, I now note with greater interest scientific terms themselves like ‘current’ and ‘potential’. These words often have fascinating histories of their own. While it is common for physics teachers to speak of current as the movement of electrons in a wire, the word ‘current’ was used to describe electricity many years before the concept of an electron (Greek for amber) was formulated. Initially, the flow of electricity was simply likened to the flow of a river, a current. The term electric potential (voltage) is intimately linked to the notions of Aristotelian act and potency, old metaphysical concepts which the Inkling, Owen Barfield, claimed held nearly “half the weight of the philosophical thought of the Western mind… between Aristotle and Aquinas.”7 Perhaps words and metaphor are at the heart of many scientific concepts, and this need not compromise the truth of theories. Consider this passage from Albert Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus.

And here are trees and I know their gnarled surface, water and I feel its taste. These scents of grass and stars at night, certain evenings when the heart relaxes-how shall I negate this world whose power and strength I feel? Yet all the knowledge on earth will give me nothing to assure me that this world is mine. You describe it to me and you teach me to classify it. You enumerate its laws and in my thirst for knowledge I admit that they are true. You take apart its mechanism and my hope increases. At the final stage you teach me that this wondrous and multicolored universe can be reduced to the atom and that the atom itself can be reduced to the electron. All this is good and I wait for you to continue. But you tell me of an invisible planetary system in which electrons gravitate around a nucleus. You explain this world to me with an image. I realize then that you have been reduced
to poetry: I shall never know. Have I the time to become indignant? You have already changed theories. So that science that was to teach me everything ends up in a hypothesis, that lucidity founders in metaphor, that uncertainty is resolved in a work of art.8

This is a beautiful passage full of insight. These ideas unfortunately led Camus to postmodern skepticism. But for those that believe that language itself is deeply connected to reality through Christ the incarnate logos, it need not unsettle our belief in truth. Consider Barfield’s statement from Saving the Appearances, “There will be a revival of Christianity when it becomes impossible to write a popular manual of science without referring to the Incarnation of the Word.”9 Perhaps our belief that truth must provide mathematical certainty is itself a poetic construct and not the only way to understand truth.

Countenancing this hypothesis, let us consider the thought of Descartes, the father of modern philosophy, and his desire for apodictic certainty. Descartes (and Galileo as well) was wrestling with atomism. This philosophy
was formulated in the fifth century B.C. by the Greek philosopher Democritus. But it was a poem, De Rerum Natura, which transmitted atomistic thought to European culture. This poem, meaning On the Nature of Things, was written by the ancient Roman Lucretius and had been lost to Europe for nigh one thousand years. When rediscovered in the 1400’s, its atheistic and reductionistic assertions caused quite a stir among intellectuals.10 During this period of great religious fervor which at times careened out of control, the picture of an inert reality composed of uncuttable, disinterested atoms bouncing around in empty space attracted many adherents. There is no god, there are no souls, there is no purpose or meaning. Reality is merely atoms in motion in the void and the “highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain.”11 Montaigne openly flirted with atheistic atomism in the late 16th century. By the 17th century Galileo and Descartes were explicitly searching for a Christian version of atomism. Once Isaac Newton included atomistic philosophy into his “System of the World,” it became a part of the mechanistic paradigm of modern science. Truth and certainty were then to know the exact positions of the atoms and the laws by which they were governed, for there was nothing more which affected worldly matters. Thus when Napoleon asked the renowned astronomer Pierre-Simon Laplace what place God had in his system of planetary motion, Laplace could famously retort “I have no need of that hypothesis.”12

Some of us may feel obliged at this point to say, “OK, well they were right.” But let us conclude with a couple of final thoughts. Modern physicists no longer believe in Democritean atoms or Newtonian corpuscles. Descartes and Galileo followed Lucretius to conceive of reality as composed of tiny hard ‘uncuttable’ pieces of matter, but the ‘atoms’ of Rutherford or Bohr were filled mostly with empty space.13 These ‘atoms’ soon became eminently cuttable into neutrons, electrons and protons. And protons and neutrons are considered in turn to be composed of quarks, which are believed to exist only in groups of two or three. Interestingly, the word quark is a neologism. It comes from a line in a poem by James Joyce in Finnegan’s Wake, “Three quarks for Muster Mark!” The atomism of Descartes which led to the mathematicization of science was a figment of a poem, no more or less ‘absolutely’ true than the bizarrely communal quarks of Murray Gell-Mann. The assumptions that led Descartes, Galileo, Newton, and Locke to disenfranchise words and qualities from their rightful place in science have been
long displaced. What lingers is a stultifying scientism. “She blinded me with science,” objected Thomas Dolby before he yielded that science is “poetry in motion.” While many generations before Descartes, and possibly even Francis Bacon himself, might have concurred with Dolby, the dubious rock-poet, this sentiment is mostly relegated
to the postmodern counterculture today.14 Thus it is rare but refreshing to hear thoughts such as the one which Cornell physicist, Carl Sagan, put into the mouth of his leading scientist in the finale of his novel-made-movie Contact. When his heroine, Eleanor ‘Ellie’ Arouet beheld the wonders of the galaxy from her starship, she exclaimed, “They should have sent a poet.”15 Perhaps those of us who are science educators should be training them.

Poetic Liturgy

This session employs poetry, music, and visual art to enter into the reality of a liturgical event. Covenant Christian Academy has used it throughout the school year to gather as an upper school to enter the reality of Epiphany, Good Friday, and other important events in the life of the historic church. It isn’t simply embodied learning; it is a disciplined marveling and dwelling together. We will show you how to do this in your school by doing it together. Come prepared to taste and see one of the most meaningful events in the life of our school. We use it in 7th, 9th and 11th grades every year.

Christine Perrin

Christine Perrin has taught literature and creative writing at Johns Hopkins University, Messiah College, Gordon College’s Orvieto Program, through the Pennsylvania Arts Council to students of all ages, and at the local classical school where her husband was headmaster for a decade and where her children a ended K-12. She consults with classical schools in curriculum development and faculty development in poetry. She is a two time recipient of the PA Arts Council Artists Fellowship and a Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference Fellowship. Her own work appears in various journals including The New England Review, Image, TriQuarterly, Blackbird, and Christianity and Literature, The Cresset. “The Art of Poetry” a text book for middle to high school students was published in 2009 by Classical Academic Press. She attended Johns Hopkins as an undergraduate and the University of Maryland for graduate school. She keeps a blog at: h p://blog.classicalacademicpress.com/poetry

Making the Most of Poetry Out Loud

Reap the many benefits of participation in the national Poetry Out Loud contest with events and practices at your school that not only prepare your students to compete effectively, but help your students to begin a lifetime of loving and understanding poetry. With real-life demonstration and anecdotes, our team of presenters will introduce you to our school’s best practices and most substantive experiences, including our school-wide Poetry Festival, smaller ‘poetry liturgies’ attached to specific classes and our lunch-time faculty coaching sessions.

Jesse Hake

Raised in Taiwan by missionary parents, Jesse studied history at Geneva College (Beaver Falls, PA) and the University of St Andrews (Scotland) before marrying Elizabeth and taking his rst teaching job in Washington DC. Jesse has been teaching college and high school students for over nine years, with six of them at Covenant Christian Academy, a classical Christian school in Harrisburg, PA. At Covenant, Jesse has taught literature, rhetoric, theology and history as well as facilitating faculty development and overseeing upper school culture and discipline.

Poetic Liturgy

This is a practice that we have used in our schools which uses poetry to consider a subject or a moment in the church calendar. It is a meditative and contemplative event where students prepare to read the poems (chosen according to their relevance and exploration of a subject or liturgical event) and meditations on the poems. They are often accompanied by musical interludes or paintings. We have discovered that employing literature in a manner that addresses its academic elements but leads us into worship is a type of embodied learning discussed in James Smith’s book “Desiring the Kingdom.” This is appropriate for all members of the school community: parents, board members, teachers, administrators. We encourage you to come and experience this liturgy with us and transplant it to your own school this year.

Christine Perrin

Christine Perrin has taught literature and creative writing at Johns Hopkins University, Messiah College, Gordon College’s Orvieto Program, through the Pennsylvania Arts Council to students of all ages, and at the local classical school where her husband was headmaster for a decade and where her children a ended K-12. She consults with classical schools in curriculum development and faculty development in poetry. She is a two time recipient of the PA Arts Council Artists Fellowship and a Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference Fellowship. Her own work appears in various journals including The New England Review, Image, TriQuarterly, Blackbird, and Christianity and Literature, The Cresset. “The Art of Poetry” a text book for middle to high school students was published in 2009 by Classical Academic Press. She attended Johns Hopkins as an undergraduate and the University of Maryland for graduate school. She keeps a blog at: h p://blog.classicalacademicpress.com/poetry

Jesse Hake

Raised in Taiwan by missionary parents, Jesse studied history at Geneva College (Beaver Falls, PA) and the University of St Andrews (Scotland) before marrying Elizabeth and taking his rst teaching job in Washington DC. Jesse has been teaching college and high school students for over nine years, with six of them at Covenant Christian Academy, a classical Christian school in Harrisburg, PA. At Covenant, Jesse has taught literature, rhetoric, theology and history as well as facilitating faculty development and overseeing upper school culture and discipline.

How Does a Poem Mean: Teaching The Poem, Practical Guidance

This session’s focus will be specific with particular suggestions on how to look at poetry with intelligence and curiosity alongside your students, without being an expert. Learn how to interrogate the poem, how to ask pertinent and provocative questions, identify the elements of the poem and look at how the poem makes its meaning.

Christine Perrin

Christine Perrin has taught literature and creative writing at Johns Hopkins University, Messiah College, Gordon College’s Orvieto Program, through the Pennsylvania Arts Council to students of all ages, and at the local classical school where her husband was headmaster for a decade and where her children a ended K-12. She consults with classical schools in curriculum development and faculty development in poetry. She is a two time recipient of the PA Arts Council Artists Fellowship and a Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference Fellowship. Her own work appears in various journals including The New England Review, Image, TriQuarterly, Blackbird, and Christianity and Literature, The Cresset. “The Art of Poetry” a text book for middle to high school students was published in 2009 by Classical Academic Press. She attended Johns Hopkins as an undergraduate and the University of Maryland for graduate school. She keeps a blog at: h p://blog.classicalacademicpress.com/poetry

Why Read Poetry?

I am reading Paradise Lost by John Milton right now. It is a beautiful and difficult poem and I spend much energy trying to understand it. This week when we were discussing Satan in Book IV it struck me suddenly that I am guilty of behaving like Satan. His preoccupation with himself at this moment in the text has completely occluded even his ability to think outside of how a circumstance affects him. He is sealed off from the reality of God’s majesty and the ability to worship by his absorbing interest in how all things impact him.

This is a fact with which I have such long acquaintance that it is almost mundane: when we sin we are acting like the devil. But just now, as the presence of the voice of Satan seeped into my consciousness through rhythms, images, and tone, this oh so ordinary truth pierced me with fresh awareness and intensity and application to this moment in my life.

Tolkien and Lewis believed that poetry restores reality to its mythic proportions, that we are living an epic, a lyric truth, a narrative where every action has vast consequence. Reading a myth or a poem causes the enchantment of the daily to come forth, making us conscious of it anew.

Apart from that cosmic importance, there are other benefits that accrete like layers in a mountain stream. Poems reminds us that the rational alone will not take us to full knowledge.

Poetry also changes our relationship to language. It allows us to see words as more than merely serviceable vehicles. Poetry gives us an inherent sense of structure when we write. Formally or informally poetry enables us to write more beautifully and meaningfully. Poetry reminds us that metaphor is the basic way of knowing the unknown and that there are always new ways to use one thing to describe another.

Poetry gives us images that invigorate our daily experience. Never will I be able to see a fish without thinking of Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish.” I talk myself out of my despair for the ugliness of the industrialized world with Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “God’s Grandeur.” I possess Rilke’s picture of “The Panther” when I feel caged or when I meet someone who is.

Poetry has taught me that language is unimaginably deep, even bottomless, and a record of what it is like to be human. And because I write poems in response to my love of other people, I have learned what Adam felt like in the garden of the world, naming and naming.

Poetry – A Must for Classical Schools

Poetry allows the knowing of the imagination and reminds us that the rational alone will not take us to full knowledge. Poetry changes fundamentally our relationship to language as merely a serviceable vehicle. Poetry gives us an inherent sense of structure in a piece of formal writing (or even informal, like a letter). Poetry reminds us that the metaphor is the basic way of knowing the unknown and that we often discribe one thing in terms of another. Poetry gives us images to cherish and to invigorate our daily experience.

Christine Perrin

Christine Perrin has taught literature and creative writing at Johns Hopkins University, Messiah College, Gordon College’s Orvieto Program, through the Pennsylvania Arts Council to students of all ages, and at the local classical school where her husband was headmaster for a decade and where her children a ended K-12. She consults with classical schools in curriculum development and faculty development in poetry. She is a two time recipient of the PA Arts Council Artists Fellowship and a Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference Fellowship. Her own work appears in various journals including The New England Review, Image, TriQuarterly, Blackbird, and Christianity and Literature, The Cresset. “The Art of Poetry” a text book for middle to high school students was published in 2009 by Classical Academic Press. She attended Johns Hopkins as an undergraduate and the University of Maryland for graduate school. She keeps a blog at: h p://blog.classicalacademicpress.com/poetry

Put a Poet in Your Pocket

Once upon a time in the dead of winter in the Dakota territory,” writes David McCullough, “Theodore Roosevelt took off in a makeshift boat down the Little Missouri River in pursuit of thieves who had stolen his prized rowboat.” After several days, Roosevelt caught up with and got the draw on his quarry with his trusty Winchester. He then set off to haul the thieves cross country to justice. They walked forty miles, across the snow-covered Badlands, to the Dickinson jail. What makes the adventure especially notable is that during the trek, with criminals at the end of his rifle barrel, Roosevelt also managed to read Anna Karenina.

I am reminded of this story when I hear people say they haven’t the time to read. One report cites that the average American man reads just one book between his graduation from college and his death and that sixty percent of adult Americans have never read a single book in their adult lives. Alvin Kerman, in The Death of Literature, argues that reading books is “ceasing to be the primary way of knowing some- thing in our society.” We are no longer a people of ideas, curious about the world and eager to learn.

We live in a culture today that values image- oriented entertainment over knowledge and goodness, politically correct distortions over truth, filth over righteousness. Those of us in the Christian community often think we are immune, but our values and those of our children have subtly changed over the past couple of generations. For the sake of entertainment and self-esteem, we have become satisfied with mediocrity and self-centeredness, yet we still demand the benefits that hard work, sacrifice, and the search for truth provide.

Students and parents often complain about homework loads, yet students can recall with vivid detail hours of TV shows they’ve watched during the week, and I hear of the hours spent “IMing” and “Facebooking” friends. We seem unable to sacrifice amusement for anything more worthwhile.

Entertainment, wrote A.W. Tozer in 1955, is not evil in and of itself, but our devotion to entertainment as the major activity for which and by which we live is. He asserted that the abuse of a harmless thing is the essence of sin. For centuries the Church stood solidly against worldly entertainment, “recognizing it as a device for wasting time, a refuge from the disturbing voice of conscience, a scheme to divert attention from moral accountability.” More recently Christians seem to have given up the struggle. We have capitulated to the god of Entertainment.

Television destroys books. It murders academic skills. It eats away at positive character traits. It even compromises family relationships (How many families have a TV in every room?). TV pushes us away from relationships, including our most important one with our Heavenly Father.

So, let us model for our students the advice from the Psalmist to “turn our eyes away from worthless things.” To carry a book with you wherever you go is old advice and good advice. John Adams urged his son Quincy to carry a volume of poetry. “You will never be alone,” he said, “with a poet in your pocket.”

Five Steps to a Poetic Classroom

Read Aloud

Poetry was meant to be read using the body as an instrument. For centuries, even before written language, this is how people were taught poetry. This essential pleasure of poetry is also a skill which aids all kinds of learning objectives, including the ability to speak in front of others, a growth in the appreciation of language, and a lack of self-consciousness surrounding expressive reading. I recommend having students read poems aloud at the start of each day.

Memorize

Our relationship to language changes when we commit words, phrases and sentences to memory. We suddenly become aware of how the words in a sentence fit together or why a line break was chosen at a certain place or how the images relate to each other. We also feel the language and rhythms differently in our mouths when we aren’t working to read them. It requires many readings and real understanding to memorize a poem, and the poems students memorize will become dear to them simply for having memorized them. Start by having a class memorize a poem together then branch out to individual memoriza- tion and recitation. Take it a step further and have a recitation contest with judges and prizes.

Integrate Poetry with Other Subjects

Acquire a collection of good poetry texts for your library or classroom and lend them out to students. Start reading them yourself and excit- edly share a recent find with your students. Use the poems to clarify or reference a particular truth, idea or emotion that crops up in the course of your study of Scripture or history. Don’t simply choose poems for their ideas or treat them as a means to an end, however. Read them for beauty’s sake and for pure pleasure. Choose all kinds of poems— high serious poems (Keats, Milton, Homer) and less important, funny poems (Ogden Nash, for instance). Include the Psalms and discuss the biblical poetic tradition. Read poems from all time periods, giving students a taste of different eras, including our own.

Discuss Form and Meaning

Students see things that you can’t see, and the meaning of poems emerges in conversation. Reading a poem aloud and discussing it for a few minutes is a valuable exercise, even if there is more to learn from a poem. Identify formal aspects you can find (rhythm, rhyme, sound devices, structure, stanzas, line breaks, inherited forms), discuss what the meaning might be, and look for the inter-relatedness of form and meaning. Show how metaphor is central to poetry as it is to all human thought. In science, for instance, metaphor has guided our understanding of many concepts which we cannot understand without analogy— the atom, for example. In our understanding of God we use the analogies of the creeds—God as Father, Maker, King—to give us some sense of who I AM is.