Teaching Literature: Love Poetry

Manila Bulletin, February 22, 2009 | Go to article overview

Teaching Literature: Love Poetry


IN the teaching of literature, the approaches vary, and are influenced by the "movements' that are current and popular. When I was a student in the '60's, the teaching of literature in the Philippines still followed the didactic and moral approach which the American educators had brought here. The roots of this approach date to Aristotle and Horace, who prescribed that literature had to instruct and to please. Each piece had to have a "moral lesson" and the most important question asked in our class and during exams was what this lesson was. Even for poetry! Thus the popularity (and memorization!) of such inspiring poems as "Invictus," the reflective "Ode to a Grecian Urn," the socially-motivated "Man With A Hoe," to name a few.

It was also important in the teaching of literature in the '50's and '60's to familiarize the students with the biographies of the authors so as to shed light on the work, the meanings, the messages. A short historical approach was also used. The student had to know the "periods" of literature. The literary work had to be "situated" in its culture and times.

But the changes that modern thinking brought into the world soon caught up with the teaching of literature too. As the world moved on to the 20th century, the classicism, traditionalism, and romanticism of the earlier centuries gave way to an explosion of diversity and personalism. As poet W.B. Yeats had predicted, " the center" could no longer hold. In religion, philosophy and psychology, art and literature, the unshackling from rules, conventions, and age-old forms and dominant beliefs became necessary and admirable. In poetry, rhythm and rhyme, traditional form and word order, capitalization and punctuation disappear. Descriptions of objective reality (flowers, nature, women, etc.) are avoided. In fiction, a "good story" is no longer just a clean, well-ordered plot. It may well be the very personal metaphors of a private mind which the reader has to navigate. Very especially, in the different literary genres, obvious didacticism is surrendered. It is the author's "world view" more than anything else that is expressed and offered for respectful perusal.

The Western modern tenet of "art for art's sake" had many writers, critics, teachers paying obeisance at its shrine. The teaching of literature had to adjust to this new emphasis on form and expression, and to move away from didacticism and historicity. There was no imperative to "get the lesson." Poems were tackled apart from any link to the author, to history and culture. The poem could well enough stand alone, and simply "be," its study one of form, imagery, structure. Interpretations as to its meaning were as many and as different as the readers. No longer were there "the message, the theme, the meaning." Everything was tentative and acceptable. It was an imaginative world with no boundaries.

But as in many things, a balance is best. When the fad blew over, the reading, interpretation, and teaching of literature respected once more its roots: The author, the times. Clearly, to cite just one example, how else can T.S. Eliot's difficult long poem "The Wasteland" (said to be the single most important poetic work of the 20th century) be understood without some background on Eliot himself?

Today, with communications technology so advanced and so attractive with many convenient and quick tools and venues, teaching literature requires that the proper interest buttons be pushed. The socio-historical approach seems best in the light of the present complex interests and needs. What persist among young and old alike are green-environmental, geo-political, and economic issues; topics of personal/spiritual wholistic growth, inner peace and maturity; religion; the eternal powerful human adumbrations of love and sexuality. If long-time bestsellers like " A Purpose-Driven Life" or "Chicken Soup for the Soul" and "A New Earth" (Eckhart Tolle) can be taken as good indicators, "to instruct" as a function of literature continues unchallenged. …

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