Poetry: Soul food for learners


A few weeks ago a student came up to me and asked: “Do we need to study poetry?”

This was no existential question; he just wanted to know if he could skip poetry for the forthcoming exams. While younger students often enjoy rhyme, rhythm and imagery in the poems they memorise in their language classes, as they get older, students begin to think of poetry as a redundant part of the syllabus with little relevance to their lives. So the question keeps coming back: Why do we need to study poetry?

Why should one study science? It would seem an absurd question to ask. Many people are readily able to see why it is important to study science. And yet relatively few see the need to study poetry. Given the complexity of poetry encountered in our later school years, a sizeable population would like to vote it out of the educational system.

Even as I search for answers to this question posed by many a student, I am convinced of the deep necessity of engaging with poetry. In this article I would like to share my perspective, and an experience, that makes poetry central to my life, and leads me to think that studying poetry is perhaps part of learning to become human.

I feel that we need to study poetry because it can freeze a moment in life. It can express the depth of that moment in a few words. In doing so it can kindle deep emotions that you did not even know existed within you. A poem can revolutionise one’s way of thinking and being.

When I first read Gillian Clarke’s Lament, the impact of war hit me in the face like never before. It evoked many images and in a flash I could see how the nature of war had changed in some ways and yet had remained unchanged in others. It had changed in that war is no longer about values of ‘heroism’. It had not changed in that animals did not matter in war. I was thinking of disparate poems from across cultures. Perhaps it is not a scholarly thing to compare ancient poems from India to a modern poem from England. But these connections existed in me and it startled me that I had made these connections in a flash. War has long figured as a theme in poetry. In fact, the two great epics of India, The Ramayan and The Mahabharat are based on war. Even prior to these epics, the Rig Veda lays down the right conduct of war. Vedic rules maintain that it is unjust to strike someone from behind, cowardly to poison the tip of the arrow and heinous to attack the sick or old, children and women. Yet, in The Ramayana, Rama’s excuse for shooting Vali in the back was that a person has no duties to animals, and Vali belonged to the monkey army.

The author teaches English at Rishi Valley School, Madnapalle. She can be reached at jyothi@rishivalley.org.

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