Wednesday, 17 November 2010
A Secret and Subversive Pleasure 3
Bell’s second enemy was the nature and values of the institution. Schools have tended to demand uniformity, respectability as well as results. They demanded more of the first two in Bell’s day, both as pupil and later as teacher. Our schools – I myself have taught in a number – do however demand results of an increasingly Gradgrindian kind functioning in a Gradgrindian society in which the supposedly less relevant subjects – the arts and humanities – are considered luxuries and less important. We are constantly testing to the point that subjects become functions of testing and results. For various reasons to be dealt with later, poems are not amenable to testing of this kind, let alone multiple choice answers.
Another enemy Bell sees, as witnessed by the poems, is the class, that group of sheep and goats the teacher is supposed to guide towards a sheepfold of starred A grades, or whatever seems feasible under the circumstances. The class is a group. Bell, I suspect, sees poetry as essentially a singular, solitary, perhaps even necessarily lonely series of encounters with something vital. He may well believe - as might I – that poetry is the opposite of parties and groups and institutions. A class behaves like a class or gang in some ways, but a poem is often a deep communication from one mouth to a single pair of ears. A class is composed of single pairs of ears. Poems are to be listened to intently. The language in poems, even of apparently the simplest kind, requires concentration to expand. It might be that poems are desperate, fastidious outsiders, like Baudelaire, or thieves of fire like Prometheus.
On top of this Bell considered himself a Muse poet – his relationship, as he saw it, was with the same goddess that Robert Graves worshipped, that is to say a being that took you, took you alone, rode you, led you through hallucinatory scenes and terrible desire then discarded you. Bell believed that poetry was, in some way, dangerous.
If you consider this to be adolescent (and I don’t) it is best to take it up with Robert Graves, Thomas Wyatt, Sappho and a good number of marvellous poets. It is in any case worth remembering that the class is composed of adolescents whose instinctive notion of the poetic (not that they would describe it in that way) may be an early form of the same vision. The students are not all responsible commuting citizens preparing for middle management or sound employment of any kind. Glamour is second nature to them: they are very ready to find things dull. Ask them what they understand by terms like poetry in motion’, or a phrase like, ‘that is sheer poetry’.
Granted, if you are a teacher, you are a representative of the institution that pays you and expects you to deliver results. You cannot go very far by identifying with the students, nor would the students welcome it. You cannot be played by Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, which is a gross sentimentalisation of a real issue. But unless you understand the connection between the energies in poetry and the energies in growing children you will find it difficult. That is assuming you like poetry in the first place.