aefenglommung (aefenglommung) wrote,

Real men like poetry

Poetry is kind of a boutique interest these days. What there is produced is either obscure or drowning in syrup. Either way, modern poetry is like a sump pump: it is designed to bring stuff up from the depths, and it tends to gush at times.

Poetry wasn't always like that. Poetry was about battling against fate, and the fire in one's soul that comes from a love like no other, and the wisdom that comes from hard times endured without complaint. It was invented by men, and enjoyed by men. Especially aristocratic men. Oh, and "aristocratic" didn't mean snooty and pampered; Harald Hardrada, the Last Viking, was an adventurer and a warrior and a king -- a proud aristocrat, he -- but had also mastered the art of the skald, the most demanding level of Norse poetry there was. As a teenager, he heard a great warrior-poet in a first aid tent give a couple of lines of verse without a proper ending. Harald, who was there to be treated for his wounds, too, laconically ended his poem for him with the only word in Old Norse that could fit the rhyme and meter.

Beowulf is aristocratic poetry. It's a tale about monsters, but also about duty and loyalty and being a man of one's word. It's about helping others, but it's also about making your boasts good. It's about wisdom, both the wisdom of old Hrothgar, but also the wisdom of young Beowulf.

Dante, Shakespeare, Homer, the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Chaucer, all wrote for, and about, men and their interests. The psalms of David were written by a warrior king exploring his thoughts.

One reason that boys often get turned off by poetry is that the kind of stuff that gets put in school textbooks these days is so drippy. "Flower in a crannied wall" was considered preposterous when it was written, but we have lots of flowers in crannied textbooks.

When I was a Freshman in high school, we had a "hip" English teacher who had us reading lyrics from Simon and Garfunkel. The early S&G was too depressing for words, broody and suicidal, all fretted over with the loss of meaning felt by the Silent Generation. Compare the concluding lines from "Save the life of my child" with Tennyson's "Ulysses."

from Save the life of my child

"Save the life of my child!"
Cried the desperate mother
"Oh, what's becoming of the children?"
People asking each other

When darkness fell, excitement kissed the crowd
And it made them wild
In the atmosphere of freaky holiday
When the spotlight hit the boy
And the crowd began to cheer
He flew away

"Oh, my Grace, I got no hiding place."

from Ulysses

The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
'T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

It is not enough to train boys' bodies, if all you have for their minds is pablum. Men think big thoughts, and training boys to think the biggest thoughts after the biggest thinkers, to master language as they master the throwing of a ball, to acquire the sparkle of wit as well as a store of accumulated facts, is the need of the young men in our care.

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