John Keating, an English teacher at a prestigious U.S. private high school, has just told his students to tear out several pages of dead prose that introduce a poetry textbook. Included in the pages that were ripped are words such as:
“To fully understand poetry, we must first be fluent…with its metre, rhyme and figures of speech. Then ask two questions. One: How artfully has the objective of the poem been rendered? And, two: How important is that objective? Question one rates the poem’s perfection. Question two rates its importance. And once these questions have been answered…determining a poem’s greatness becomes a relatively simple matter.
If the poem’s score for perfection is plotted…on the horizontal of a graph …and its importance is plotted on the vertical, then calculating the total area of the poem…yields the measure of its greatness.”
This is antithetical to everything that Keating stands for. So he had the students rip out the pages, ball them up, and toss them into a wastebasket. Many students were quietly shocked and couldn’t believe what they were being asked to do.
Transcript from Dead Poets Society
Now, my class, you will learn to think for yourselves again. You will learn to savour words and language. No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world. I see that look in Mr Pitts’ eye… like 19th-century literature has nothing to do with going to business school or medical school. Right? Maybe. Mr Hopkins, you may agree with him, thinking, “Yes, we should simply study our Mr Pritchard and learn our rhyme and metre and go quietly about the business of achieving other ambitions.”
I have a little secret for you. Huddle up. Huddle up! 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. Medicine, law, business, engineering: these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life.
But poetry, beauty, romance, love… these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman:
O me, O life of the questions of these recurring.
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish.Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,The question, O me! so sad, recurring—
What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here—that life exists and identity.
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
“That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse. “
What will your verse be?