Proper Poetical Education

April 27, 2022 | 1 5 min read

“The metaphor whose manage we are best taught in poetry––
that is all there is of thinking.”  
Robert Frost,  “Education by Poetry:  A Meditative Monologue” 

From the backseat, my three-year-old asks, “What does ‘Take a sad song and make it better’ mean?” We’d been listening to The Beatles, and it seems this line had lodged itself inside him. He does this often––chews on something a few days before asking about it.    

When I brought this up to a colleague, he took my son’s question quite literally.  “Well, one way is to put it in a major key,” he said, “like that cover of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ from a few years ago.” I see on YouTube there’s a cottage industry of musicians redoing songs in major keys: R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” receives the treatment, as does The Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of These),” Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence,” Katy Perry’s “Roar,” the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Californication” too. (And even though my son didn’t ask what it means to take a better song and make it sadder, there are even songs in a major key redone to a minor. Particularly jarring: The Village People’s “YMCA” and Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin.’”) 

My son’s question suggests he knows “Take a sad song and make it better” doesn’t quite mean what it says. He seems to understand “make it better” doesn’t mean “play it more proficiently” or even “make it better at being sad.” His is a question of metaphor and––taking a step back––how someone comes to know metaphor.     

I think immediately of Robert Frost’s “Education by Poetry,” originally a speech to the Amherst College Alumni Council in November 1930. Frost laments how poetry has been pushed out of the curriculum at a number of colleges, with the consequence that graduates are not “educated enough to find their way around in contemporary literature.” Frost continues, with a bit of a kids-these-days tone:  

They don’t know what they may safely like in libraries and galleries. They don’t know how to judge an editorial when they see one. They don’t know how to judge a political campaign. They don’t know when they are being fooled by a metaphor, an analogy, a parable. 

And, I would add, they don’t know how to judge a piece of classic rock. At the root of the problem is reading, and at the root of that, Frost says, is figurative language, “and metaphor is, of course, what we are talking about.” Frost puts it in its starkest terms: “Education by poetry is education by metaphor.” I find it interesting that to make it in the world––to make sense of editorials, of campaigns, of politics––one must understand figurative language. These arenas Frost lists are not ones most people would think belong to the domain of poetry but metaphor, nonetheless, governs them.  

So, we need more poetry, we need more metaphor. Poetry, Frost says, “begins in trivial metaphors, pretty metaphors, ‘grace’ metaphors, and goes on to the profoundest thinking that we have.” There’s a progression, from the banal to the extra-ordinary, poetry able to cover both and everything in between. “Poetry provides the one possible way of saying one thing and meaning another,” Frost says. This is the genesis of my son’s question, and, it seems to me, the foundation of his play. When he takes a spoon and pretends it’s a race-car, I see metaphor. When he knocks over his train set, pretending his hand is a storm, I see metaphor.    

Like Frost says, metaphor begins in the trivial. My son will soon come to know how to use figurative language, and this knowledge comes, in part, from imaginative play, one thing standing in for another. This play mirrors how language works: letters act as metaphors themselves, these marks on a page standing in for sounds produced by our tongues, those sounds standing in for ideas. Everything in language acts as a proxy for something else, or, as Frost says, metaphor is “the whole of thinking.”  And the whole of play.    

Frost then provides a list of everyday metaphors, or, as he calls them, metaphors “to live by.” I won’t go through them––we can each generate a list of our own; it’s easy enough to do so. From my own essay here, I’ve referred to the root of a problem or, two paragraphs prior, the foundation of my son’s play.  Metaphor is impossible to escape. It’s this inability to get away from metaphor that prompts Frost to say the following. (And here I will quote him at length.) The key words for me in this passage are at homesafe, and at ease, these, too, metaphors:  

What I am pointing out is that unless you are at home in the metaphor, unless you have had your proper poetical education in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere. Because you are not at ease with figurative values: you don’t know the metaphor in its strength and its weakness. You don’t know how far you may expect to ride it and when it may break down with you. You are not safe in science; you are not safe in history.  

Frost had said metaphor is something “to live by,” and the Frost of my epigraph says metaphor is “all there is of thinking.” But metaphor isn’t something we just come into on our own. We aren’t at home in it without guidance or assistance. Metaphor doesn’t come easily. We need, as Frost says above, a “proper poetical education in the metaphor.” A proper poetical education. This is why my son must ask what “take a sad song and make it better” means. He’s searching for that education.  

Frost calls this kind education one wherein the student “comes close to poetry.” (There’s another metaphor, coming close.) It can happen two ways. Students can write poetry––but Frost doesn’t force this on anyone; only those who want should write poetry, he says. The other way to come close to poetry, which he does encourage everyone to do, is to read it.    

(How many college writing courses are built around a book of poetry? What might that open up for students in terms of lessons on reading? What might it teach them about language and its uses? How might it prepare them to judge an editorial when they see one, or judge a political campaign? How might it help them know when they are being fooled by metaphor, by analogy, by parable, by rhetoric?) 

The challenge in teaching poetry, according to Frost, is knowing whether a student has come close to the poet. “The closeness––everything depends on the closeness with which you come” Frost declares. And then, in what I read as a vulnerable moment, he speaks candidly of his own teaching: “It is hard for me to know,” Frost says. He explains: “I have lived with some boys a whole year over some of the poets and I have not felt sure whether they have come near what it was all about.” (What a metaphor here, living over some of the poets. Not reading them but living over them.)    

What teacher hasn’t second guessed their work of the previous year, of a career, wondering, hoping, that the students, even just a single student, came close to the subjects at hand? Sometimes, if he is fortunate enough, Frost hears one remark from one of his students––just one remark, that’s all he has to show for a year of teaching––that will show him the student has come close to poetry. That one remark “was all I got that told me what I wanted to know.”     

As it is with my son. At Christmas, after reading St. Luke’s account of the nativity, I asked him what it means that “Mary treasured up all these things in her heart.” “Oh papa,” he said, dismissing my question, “That’s what I do with you.” 

Image Credit: Wikipedia

is associate professor of English at Seattle Pacific University and author of Touching This Leviathan.

One comment:

  1. Thanks for this piece, reminding me of an ongoing discussion I’ve been meaning to return to. You should also check out Metaphors We Live By, by cognitive scientists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, who go into thorough detail to show just how impossible it is to think without metaphors. Lakoff wrote another book, on poetic metaphor, with Mark Turner, More than Cool Reason.
    I wonder if Frost is correct; for example, does one’s experience in reading poetry make us better citizens? Less naive, less susceptible to political and commercial hucksters? I really don’t know. I suppose it could depend on the pedagogy. Many of my favorite poems and favorite contemporary and modern poets employ an explicit skepticism of metaphor. I think they could add to this discussion.
    The most ominous types of figurative speech that I’ve tried to interrogate in my own poetry, are the signifiers for group identity, and the use of a person’s name –a figure head– as a shorthand for a much more complex set of actors and operations. I believe it has rotted our brains (so to speak, of course); certainly it’s infantilzing political discourse in this country, and contributing, from every space of the ideological spectrum to the hateful othering of people. I don’t know what do about this, and I wish I could write the kind of poetry (which would necessarily have more emotional than intellectual preoccupations) that could contribute needed rhetoric. A belief in this suggest of course the Warf thesis about language constructing our ontology and (ontological) thought, which does overlap a bit with Lakoff and Johnson’s. But I digress. Look forward to reading you again, Peter.

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