catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 13, Num 8 :: 2014.04.18 — 2014.05.01


Schooled in poetry

I always wanted a teacher like Mr. Keating in the movie Dead Poets Society — someone brazen enough to make us rip pages out of our textbooks!; someone bold enough to teach a lesson not on a text, but on the sidewalk outside. The closest I came was probably Señor Douglas, my Spanish teacher, who would let us go outside and sit under a tree for our lessons. Or maybe Miss Sara, my feminist English teacher who didn’t wear bras. I had some good teachers, but I don’t remember anyone who inspired and challenged me as much as Mr. Keating did.

“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion,” he told his students. The guys in the seats looking back at him looked bewildered in that moment.

When I was getting my MFA, I remember my class having a conversation about whether or not poetry can change the world. “Can poetry stop wars?” someone asked. After some discussion, we agreed that it can. It might not stop a tank, but poetry can change people’s viewpoint on the lives they are living, and that is how you begin to change the world.

In Li-Young Lee’s beloved poem “From Blossoms,” the speaker ruminates on the simple act of eating a summer peach. Yet in that act came an intense acknowledgement of the marrow-deep connection we have to the earth:

succulent peaches we devour, dusty skin and all,
comes with the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat.
O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard.

The poem ends with a call to live in fearless joy:

There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.

I don’t believe a person can read this poem and not be urged to step out of her routine in order to examine the details of her life and find meaning in the quiet acts: eating, washing, cooking, weeding. This is what poetry does: gives significance to the small things, which helps us live extraordinary lives in the midst of the ordinary.

Poetry can also give us freedom. When Mr. Keating gave his students poetry, he gave them a way to fight against a system that manufactured well-behaved, educated gentlemen who couldn’t think for themselves. Poetry allowed the shackles of conformity to collapse and the breath of passion to escape their bodies. Suddenly, they were free to be the men of their imaginations. Neil could become an actor; Knox could ask Christine out; Todd could face his fears.

Poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in Sonnets to Orpheus:

In this uncontainable night,
Be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses,
the meaning discovered there.

And if the world has ceased to hear you,
Say to the silent earth: I flow.
To the rushing waters speak: I am.

In a world that rushes by us shouting that we are unimportant, these words remind us that our very humanity is intertwined with the water and air and dirt that we inhabit. We have a voice, and we should not be afraid to use it. We should not be afraid of the night, or our own bodies, or our own thoughts. When we speak, we speak to the rivers, the trees, the rain, the oxygen escaping the leaves. Our voice affects the earth.

Mr. Keating teaches us all an important lesson: “Life’s about raw, authentic, seize-the-day living.” In giving them poetry, Mr. Keating gave his students a way to live their best lives. 

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