America, and Fall, Needs Poetry
What the poetic tradition teaches us about the world cannot be replaced by any other discipline.
What contemporary American education needs most, and what should replace its racialized and politicized language arts programs, is a poetry-rich curriculum.
In a fantastic recent article, Mathew Anderson discussed the importance of teaching poetry in the context of the Catholic faith. Anderson argues that today’s anything goes attitude is only possible because we rejected the art form:
If we want our young people to believe in a transcendent faith in which they conform themselves to higher ideals, we must teach them that meaning is to be found in the reality outside themselves. This is where poetry comes into the picture. I do not believe it is a coincidence that the stronger the worldview of self-invention has become, the less and less emphasis modern education has placed on poetry, for poetry communicates precisely through meanings inherent in reality.
Having been raised in the militantly atheist Soviet Union, I can add that even when we were denied access to religious practices, poetry revealed meaning in life, and created a sense of both permanence and historical significance in a society otherwise deprived of both.
The USSR adopted the 19th century system of public education and filled it with its own content. That content, fortunately for us, retained the pre-revolutionary classics, chief among them the great Romantic poet Alexander Pushkin. In a very formal 19th century manner, pupils were made to memorize verses, and then recite them in front of the class. Rote learning worked out great in this case because as an eight or ten-year-old I couldn’t fully appreciate the depth and the beauty of the literary masterpieces no matter how well the teacher explained it.
Now, having committed them to memory and heard others quote the same lines—that’s what it means to have a canon—I can easily access it later in life. For instance, every time I drive down a tree-lined street in fall I hear in my head the iconic verses from Pushkin’s poem Autumn:
A melancholy time! So charming to the eye!
Your beauty in its parting pleases me.
I love the lavish withering of nature,
The gold and scarlet raiment of the woods.
I don’t believe there is a native Russian speaker in the world who does not think of these verses once the leaves begin to change colors. Pushkin gave us the lyrical primer for experiencing the beauty of fall. In Russian, the phrase so charming to the eye, очей очарованье, is composed of two similarly sounding words. The poet created a lulling effect, inducing a bleak, melancholy mood accompanying the parting beauty he describes.
The lavish withering of nature with its gold and scarlet evokes something beyond a simple description of the woods. Scarlet should have been translated as crimson, a deeper, more saturated, and regal shade of red. Here is why it is significant: Pushkin was born into Russia’s slave-owning aristocracy, lived much of his life in St. Petersburg, and, in the last decade, was friendly with Nicholas I. But he was, above all, a romantic poet who ran with the revolutionary Decembrist crowd. Through much of his short life, before being shot at a duel in 1837, the founder of modern Russian literature was censored, under the watch of secret police, and banished into internal exile. The opulence of the season is not unlike the decadence of St. Petersburg palaces—places the writer knew intimately, but with which he was never fully at ease. His very formal iambic meter reveals the grandeur of nature like that of the imperial court, only without the gossip and intrigue.
Some say that journalism is the first rough draft of history, but I think this honor belongs to poetry. Not so much because the poet often stands as a witness to history, like Anna Akhmatova, who recorded the experiences of people under Stalinism, or Olga Bergholz during the Nazi occupation, but because the poet shapes the sensibility of his age. To a Russian speaker, the 1820s and ’30s are, above all, the time of Pushkin, of crimson and gold and grand lucid rhymes.
I find it incredibly sad that during the last couple of years American pundits have been obsessively disparaging the pumpkin spice latte season. I don’t have anything against pumpkin spice, or lattes: the lavish withering of nature should be enjoyed with all senses. White women who, I am told, are responsible for this coffee house trend, picked just the right beverage for fall—the one with a sweet, slightly rotten smell, and a rich, bitter taste.
The chattering class’s fixation on pumpkin spice latte is what happens when education almost entirely eliminates poetry, and replaces it with deconstruction. A case in point is a Jezebel article claiming that America invented a basic white girl who just loves fall. In some random manner, Jezebel assembled September through November popular culture images, reminded us that Thanksgiving is a national holiday, and announced that it all somehow culminated in a white chick in an oversized sweater at Starbucks.
What this kind of writing doesn’t show is that fall is a season worth loving. And if there is something distinctly American in the way in which we celebrate it—after all, pumpkins and turkeys are native to the New World—the basic white girl detractors didn’t divulge it. A trendy political attack on white women cannot serve as a substitute for nature, truth, and beauty.
I’m dumbfounded by this identification of fall with the coffee-drinking habits of white women. My experience is very different. Alexander Pushkin, a quintessential Old World poet, and a black man, taught me to love the season. Pushkin’s great-grandfather was Abram Gannibal, an African page kidnapped to Constantinople, and later given as a gift to Peter the Great. Freed by the tsar, Gannibal rose to a position of prominence at the court, received the title of nobility, and fathered many children.
To help me understand the season I decided to ask a poet. Joseph Massey is a native New Englander who wrote Autumnal Equinox during his stay in Hamboldt when he was trying to find the colors of New England in California. Fall contains multitudes, and Massey’s work, very different from Romantic lyricism, celebrates an elegant, barren feel—quiet contradictions resolved in minimalism:
There are seasons here
If you squint. And there’s
relief in the landscape’s
sloughed off cusps of color
I asked Massey about the poem, and about the season. He wrote:
The landscape, as well as the gathering cold and lengthening nights, sends me into deep spirals of nostalgia. Not nostalgia for anything or anyone, but the ache of nostalgia alone—the psychic pain of missing a place without knowing where or what that place is—puts me in a mood to write poems. However, I don’t write poems about nostalgia; I write against nostalgia. I engage with the natural world around me to write myself fully into the present. Autumn’s vivid death dance facilitates the poetic practice of noticing.
Because poets practice noticing, they reveal the truth about the world that goes beyond a single novelty coffee drink. What a student can get from engaging with poetry starting in elementary school—or earlier—cannot be substituted by ten informational essays on global warming. Lucky for us, there is a rich tradition of English language poetry that we can introduce to our children.
Katya Sedgwick is a writer in the San Francisco Bay area. You can follow her on Twitter @KatyaSedgwick.