In 2005, the National Endowment for the Arts, together with the Poetry Foundation, established Poetry Out Loud, a program intended to encourage “the nation’s youth to learn about great poetry through memorization and recitation.” In the 2009–10 school year, some 325,000 students from across the United States participated, and in April, 17-year-old Amber Rose Johnson of Rhode Island became national champion. She recited, among other poems, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116—“Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments.”
The theory underlying Poetry Out Loud is sound. For over two millennia, the recitation of poetry formed one of the pillars of elementary education in the West. It fell out of favor in the twentieth century, a casualty of the progressive revolution in schools, but in recent years, the belief that poetry is a profound educational force has regained credence. T. S. Eliot spoke of the “music of poetry,” and music, scientists tell us, elicits a mysterious but not negligible response in the depths of the brain. It may be that Plato was right when he asserted that the rhythms and harmonies of poetry “sink furthest into the depths of the soul and take hold of it most firmly by bringing it nobility and grace.”
Poetry Out Loud fails in practice, however, to emphasize sufficiently those qualities of poetry essential to its educative power. It is not simply that the program has been avowedly influenced by hip-hop, with its typically monotonous rhythms, and by “slam poetry,” a form of expression more akin to political propaganda than to art. A deeper problem is that the Poetry Out Loud anthology, on which participants must draw in choosing the poems they recite, favors modern poets, many of whom lack the rhythmical sophistication of the acknowledged masters of versification—the major poets in the literary canon. Of some 360 poets featured in the online anthology, more than 200 were born after 1910. With poetry so recent, it is difficult to distinguish poems with a permanent value from those that reflect transient fashions. Much of the poetry chosen for the anthology is, moreover, metrically irregular; whatever the other merits of this verse, it cannot match the intricacy and musical complexity of poetry composed in fidelity to the traditional rubrics of metrical order.
No less troubling is the failure of the NEA to make aesthetic excellence its sole criterion in selecting poets born before 1910. Considerations of sex and race have evidently weighed heavily. Louise Bogan, not a major poet, has three poems included in the anthology; William Wordsworth has two. Lorine Niedecker is allotted two poems, Matthew Arnold one. The single poem of Coleridge that makes the grade (“Kubla Khan”) places him in the same rank as Phillis Wheatley, also represented by a single poem. Ann and Jane Taylor have obtained the NEA’s laureate wreath for “Twinkle, twinkle, little star”—yet Walter Scott, Henry Vaughan, and Algernon Charles Swinburne have been left out altogether.
The NEA’s clumsy appeal to egalitarian politics in the judgment of poetic merit raises the question of whether government is competent to promote poetry in the first place. The perception of officials charged with administering great national projects is practically bound to be ecumenical: they must do their latitudinarian best to satisfy a thousand competing constituencies. But it is a paradox of the cosmopolitan vision that, while its range is wide, its culture is shallow. Cosmopolitanism, Eliot said, “can be the enemy of universality,” for universality never comes except through a deep comprehension of some few things that “one knows thoroughly.” Poetry Out Loud bears out the insight; perhaps its most striking quality is its superficiality. In trying to be all things to all people, it can never mean much to any single individual. Living movements, John Henry Newman said, “do not come of committees.”
The effort to revive the poetic and musical culture that once animated schools and communities must originate not in Washington but in the provincial life of schools and communities themselves. Just as the great poets who have a universal power to touch the heart have often been strongly marked by the customs, manners, and traditions of particular times and places, so the educational tradition that successfully introduces the universal poet to a particular community is likely to have a strongly eccentric character, born of a sensitivity to the community’s purely local culture—the intrinsic poetry of the place. Education, to be sure, should no more have a narrowly parochial or separatist object than knowledge of language should restrict itself to a particular dialect or tongue. But as the Roman Empire and the Roman Church discovered, introducing the fruits of universal culture into discrete communities requires making allowance for the particular soils in which the seed is to be planted. One cannot federalize poetry—or, indeed, education itself.
When Newman, as vicar of Littlemore, near Oxford, found that the parish school had fallen into slovenly ways, he went into the classroom himself and began to teach the children to sing. Their voices, he said, were “so thrilling as to make one sick with love.” The rhythms and harmonies of music and poetry not only can bring order to a schoolroom; they can also help awaken minds. Yet it is precisely this power of awakening minds that a program devised by a central authority can never possess. Wherever it is the fashion, in Newman’s words, “to merge the nation in the government,” wherever the central administration has promulgated such a multitude of rules as to prevent people from doing the rousing work through their own efforts, there the citizenry will assuredly sleep.