Learning any single thing: poems in the classroom, and vice versa

I’ve been trying to resurrect my Irish language skills during this latest lockdown. Over the last few years, ‘use more Irish’ has been a New Year’s resolution that hasn’t lasted past the feast of the Epiphany, but this year I’ve really been trying. There are apps involved, notebooks filling up with vocab lists, and podcasts to partially understand. One of the great clichés around learning Irish is that, after 13 or 14 years of compulsory Irish at school, we’re all unable to speak it because of ‘the way it’s taught.’ While nobody uses the fact that I wander around the world functionally innumerate as an indictment of the maths teaching profession, Irish teachers everywhere are expected to carry the weight of our collective lack of fluency. The fact that you gain fluency in a language only through finding yourself surrounded by speakers of that language who don’t or won’t speak English, a situation virtually impossible to engineer in Irish, is rarely mentioned.

My brother’s Irish poetry textbook, source of abstract nouns and classic schoolbook graffiti

Another unmentioned truth of the schoolroom is that everything is badly taught there, at least some of the time to some of the people, by virtue of the students’ own lack of freedom to choose what and how they learn. In any room filled with people who are there under duress, it’s a wonder that any learning happens at all, and a tiny miracle when students manage to carve out space for themselves to blossom in these neoliberal wastelands of targets and measurable outcomes. Maths is ‘badly taught’ when it fails to convince its learners of its applications in ‘the real world,’ that domain to which the schoolroom is a mere antechamber. Poetry is ‘badly taught’ when it dissects poems into its component elements of theme, tone and technique, and fails to inspire a love of the art. This latter strikes me as a particularly harsh standard. While I’ve seen enough poems reduced to frogs in formaldehyde or cryptic crossword clues to suspect that these approaches are questionable, I also resent the implication that my job, in teaching a poem, is to elicit love. Where would you even start? Attention, and the ways it’s made, shared, and sustained in a classroom, is a mystery. At the end of any given unit of learning, I’m always astonished by the idiosyncratic jumble of wonderful things my students have taken away from the experience, often whole galaxies away from the hollow ‘outcomes’ in which I’ve had to couch my plans for their learning. People do learn things in classrooms, but the details and the modalities emerge in the miraculous interplay of attention and infinite unforeseeable variables. Love is sometimes one of these variable elements, but we have no right to expect it, and it certainly shouldn’t be the unit of measurement for the success of our engagement with language in the classroom.

This is where my habits in teaching and writing poems overlap. Both cases involve planning and preparation, setting parameters and assembling materials, but when things are really working, I’m blindsided by what emerges in the process. For example, my forthcoming book Morsel May Sleep (Sublunary Editions) started out with me hunting through Mallarmé’s Thèmes anglais pour toutes les grammaires, a textbook that he devised around translation exercises based on English proverbs, scavenging for material to use in an essay on attention and pedagogy that never got written. Instead, I ended up making tiny erasure poems from the English and French proverbs, and writing ‘afterthoughts’ to them in both languages that spun off into poems and prose poems that fold a lot of thinking about teaching, learning and attention in among references to school, family, birds and animals, boats and water, and language itself, salvaged from the proverbs and Mallarmé’s translations of them.

The copy of Thèmes anglais pour toutes les grammaires was a gift from Peter Manson, arriving just as I was finishing work on my PhD thesis, a study of abstraction in contemporary poetry focusing mainly on his own poetry and translations, and the poetry of Peter Gizzi. Manson’s work has been central to my understanding of the possibilities of language and poetry since I first encountered it in a review of his translation Stéphane Mallarmé: The Poems in Verse in 2012. The review quoted his translation of my favourite line, ‘Aboli bibelot d’inanité sonore’, rendered as ‘Abolished bauble inanely echoing’. It captured a wry wit that’s often smoothed out of Mallarmé in translation, while preserving a great deal of the line’s dense sonority. This set me off in search of Manson’s translations and his own poems, a quest that turned into an apprenticeship in the contemporary innovative poetry of Britain and Ireland, a field of which I had been entirely ignorant up to that point but one that has become my home in the years since. Reading Manson opened up this whole new world of poetry, and taught me how to read it, and eventually write it.

That line, ‘aboli bibelot d’inanité sonore’ from the ‘Sonnet en -yx,’ had, in turn, snapped me out of a hungover semi-coma in a 2nd year French poetry survey lecture in UCD in the mid-90s, and I spent the rest of that academic year squirreled away in the library, skipping lectures and reading every scrap of Mallarmé I could lay my hands on. My grades were underwhelming that whole year, and indeed for the entirety of my undergraduate career. I’m sure there was no mention, in the module descriptors for that survey course, of sparking obsessions with symbolist poets that would yield life-changing encounters with contemporary Scottish poets, and the subsequent authoring of books of poems in French and English. I know that I utterly failed to fulfil several of the criteria for that module: I’m pretty sure I never read a single Victor Hugo poem in its entirety, not even the one I submitted an execrable explication de texte on, and my grasp of French prosody remains embarrassingly sketchy. Learning did happen, though. Just not the kind that can be predicted, quantified, and outlined in the neat language of behaviourist objectives derived from B.S Skinner’s seminal work teaching pigeons to play ping-pong.  

When I first started meeting the poets and readers of my new post-Manson world, beginning with visits to SoundEye, the unique and beautiful poetry festival that Trevor Joyce and an assortment of the best people in the world ran in Cork for 20 years until 2017, I was struck by how many of them had stories of coming to poetry relatively late in life. As someone who was just learning to read and write this language in my late thirties, I was comforted by this. People had stories of being ambushed by a Frank O’Hara poem on the radio, or ending up at a Keston Sutherland reading and having their mind blown. My own ‘origin story’ was Manson’s ‘abolished bauble’ in the Guardian book pages. But it went back further than that, as I only realised once I’d started writing in earnest and found lines from Dylan Thomas, Hilaire Belloc of all people, and whole chunks of Yeats (renamed ‘Yeets’ in our house in honour of A.J. Soprano) burrowing into ‘my own’ work like an infestation of parasitic brain worms.

It took me back to the classroom, specifically the cramped rows of wooden desks in the senior class of my two-teacher primary school, where I spent four years alternating between terrified tedium and quiet (and later, louder) mutiny. When I was in the younger two classes, the headmaster would spend most of his time with the senior classes while we worked on long division and wrote out interminable tables of forainmneacha réamhfhoclacha, the prepositional pronouns of Irish. I always tuned in to the senior classes’ poems instead, filling my head with Wordsworth’s ‘Ballad of Lucy Gray’ and the hired labourer’s lament beginning Go deo deo aris ni raghad go Caiseal (never again will I go to Cashel) instead of the finer points of Irish grammar, or any maths at all. Over 30 years later, those lines are all still squirreled away in there somewhere, finding their way back out when summoned by the sound pattern in a poem I’m writing. Nobody ever set out to teach me Hilaire Belloc’s ‘Tarantella,’ or Fr Pádraig de Brún’s ‘Valparaiso,’ an Irish translation of a spurt of purest doggerel by Oliver St. John Gogarty, and yet both poems are etched forever in my brain. During rainy afternoons when the hands of the clock seemed to be going backwards, rattling through ‘the tedding and the spreading of the straw for a bedding and the wine that tasted of tar’ in my head created the illusion of movement, and made those infinitely elastic moments tolerable, maybe even meaningful. What more could you ask of a poem?