Academic journal article English Journal

Galvanizing Empathy through Poetry

Academic journal article English Journal

Galvanizing Empathy through Poetry

Article excerpt

One of the most fundamental results that could be hoped for out of the education of young people is their ability to manifest empathy. In 1909, the psychologist Edward Titchener introduced the term empathy into English as a translation of the German word Einfühlung (Stueber). R. H. Fogle and J. Barnouw explain that "Empathy is usually defined as a projection of oneself into the other or identification with the other, but the term, in fact, has referred to many divergent phenomena in both psychology and aesthetics" (408; italics in original). Despite this complication, for the purposes of this article we are going to rely on Claudio Rud's definition of empathy as "a form of mutual grasp of the experiential reality of the other and of our own" (163). Anthony M. Clohesy argues that "empathy can make us more receptive to the transformative power of Art, which, in return, can make us more empathically attuned to the lives of others" (63). This kind of attunement is necessary as it allows people to embrace diversity. Peter F. Schmid posits that "To be empathic means building a bridge to an unknown land. Empathy bridges the gap between differences, between persons- without removing the gap, without ignoring the differences" (65). Empathy is thus a means of cognitively and emotionally understanding the experiences undergone by the other while engaging in self-awareness.

Poetry is an excellent vehicle for consolidating empathy. Geri Giebel Chavis believes that "poems form noteworthy juxtapositions between the readers' world and the world created within the literary work" (165). According to Todd O. Williams, "Poetry offers students the opportunity to increase their self-awareness by helping them examine their experiences in terms of emotions and mental images as well as language" (17). By developing empathic understanding through the reading of poetry in the classroom, students "begin to see themselves and others, and themselves through others in a safe environment" (Williams 20). It seems that the effective harnessing of poetry in the education of young people can help them develop into empathic men and women.

A lot has been written about the significance of incorporating multicultural literature in the curriculum for the vicarious experiences it affords (Boyd; Dong; Xerri). Poetry is especially useful in the effort to encourage young people to value diversity. If the poem's "speaker is someone very different from ourselves, we have the unique opportunity to enter privileged space and grow in our understanding of another's struggles and triumphs" (Chavis 165). According to Ava L. McCall, "Poems make abstract issues of cultural diversity and racial, economic, and gender injustices real. Poetry definitely offers rich learning opportunities" (176). Using poetry by contemporary multicultural poets can serve "to empower students to become engaged in the educational process while at the same time developing cross-cultural understanding of their own place in the world" (Thomas and Raina 86). For example, Chavis talks about how the poem "Exile" by Nazand Begikhani allows one to "empathize with the everyday life and mindset of an individual caught between two cultures, trying to find a sense of identity in alien surroundings" (165). The use of multicultural poetry in the English classroom can act as an effective means of galvanizing empathy in young people. In this article, we describe how we sought to achieve that goal by means of our poetry lessons at a school in Malta.

Societal Context

Malta is a small nation comprised of an archipelago in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. The country lies 80 kilometers south of Sicily and 333 kilometers north of Libya. As a former colony of the British Empire, Malta recognizes English as one of its two official languages. The majority of its 415,000 citizens are bilingual, learning English and Maltese from a young age.

Due to its proximity to North Africa, every year Malta receives thousands of asylum seekers from a number of war-torn sub-Saharan countries. …

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