Poetry is dead – Staff vs Students Debate @MHS

So you missed the Students versus Staff Debate. Fear not, for we have at least some of it here in this blog post. Sadly two students were so relieved the debate was over that they threw their speeches into the bin. However we do still have speeches delivered by two of the teachers and one of the students, James Hayne, School Captain. Enjoy.

Poetry is dead was the topic for debate at Litfest 2015.

Representing the affirmative team were the teachers: Ms Amanda Carroll, Mr Sam Bryant and Mr Blair Mahoney.

Representing the negative team were the students: Alan Xue, Daniel Li and James Hayne.

Ms Amanda Carroll, first speaker for the affirmative team:

Who here saw the Year 9 Poetry Slam? [ hands up].  Poetry is dead.  I rest my case. Thank you and goodbye.[pretends to leave the stage]

No, I jest.

About leaving the stage.  Not about the death of poetry.  I actually applaud the year 9s attempts to resuscitate it (an act akin, if I may be so bold, an act akin to the desperate making out that goes on in the break out rooms at the Junior Social – if Junior Social was First Aid training and the body in question was Resuscitation Annie).

……..

Believe it or not there was a time when poetry was everywhere…a happier time when people could be free in their love for poetry.  Free in their poetry, free in their love, even (ask Mr Cogo)  I mean their love of free poetry…

There was no shame.  Poetry was a form of art and it had the power to move people.

To give you an example, I have here a heartbreakingly beautiful poem.  A haiku (that brief but resonant form) that Mr Barham wrote for Mr Crocket: (I actually wonder whether I should even read this out) *pauses

Tall Man

Shake your beard shake it

More than a beard to me: leaves, water

Reflect in autumn

Oh yes, as this poem shows, poetry has been very much alive. Misunderstood, yes.  Misappropriated, maybe.  But alive, nevertheless.  Gloriously, shamelessly, thrillingly alive and that , dear friends, was poetry’s downfall. There was a time when the poet Lord Byron could wake up in the morning, drink a white wine spritzer, wrestle his pet bear, write a verse or two then make sweet love to his half-sister Augusta.

Who can say how poetry became associated with debauchery, but over time this is exactly what happened.  It became the p-word.   Held responsible for allowing people to say and feel too much, blamed for excessive expressions of emotion,  it went underground – it became contraband. Soon noone wanted to be caught looking at poetry.

And No one knows this better than Mr Mahoney’s mum. She passed her son’s bedroom door of a night and she knew.  She had heard the occasional sob or squeal of delight. She had seen the box of Kleenex on the floor.  (for the tears, gentlemen, the tears). She knew what was happening – her boy was growing up….reading poetry.

Indeed it was not so very long ago at all, that teachers of all disciplines taught using poetry – there was no shame.  Poetry wasn’t just something you did in English class.  Teachers used to rhyme in a happier time.

Ms Petrie used Hamlet to teach algebra: To be or not two be that was the question

Mr Bush used to cycle wistfully along the Yarra calling into his loudhailer: O Romeo, Romeo!

Mr DeKorte used to teach reclined on a chaise lounge, robes askew, eating grapes peeled by his 9H minons and he was all: if music be the food of love play on.  (He also said a load of other random stuff about volleyball but that was not in iambic pentameter)

But teachers began to realize that poetry was falling on deaf ears.  More disturbingly students couldn’t understand simple poetic devices. Staff members at Melbourne High School who had alliteration in their names had to have them changed by Depol because students simply couldn’t understand them.  Who were these staff members, I hear you ask?, Ray Rawson, Flick Fusden and Ken ‘the King’ Kong. (nevermore, nevermore).  The alliterative beauty of their birthright a burden too much to bear.

And that’s not counting those whose names had the resonance of assonance:  You look askance – you’re right it’s pants these giants of our school now ants.  So I want to pay homage to the tonnage of number oneage – the teachers who went to Depol because of poetry dumbage:

Richard Prichard. Barney Mahoney.  Betty Sette. (all changed, changed utterly)

You know the most shocking thing about the death of poetry is that while poetry took body blows over the years: the dumbing down of culture –messages in greeting cards; the emergence of emoji; clickbait; a Ludowyke assembly or two….it was here – in the classrooms of MHS that poetry finally expired.

The prime suspect?  The Year 9 boy who sits down to write a poem (too easy).  Hmmmmm “My heart beat fast”  What is fast?  What is a fast thing?  (this is hard!)…..  A cheetah is fast.  My heart beats as fast as a cheetah.  (He looks around.  Very pleased) Now.  What rhymes with cheetah?

Or perhaps it was this Valentine’s day effort from a Melbourne High year 10:

Roses are Red,

Violets are Blue

I can recite pi to 3.141592….65358979….323846264338327950288419716

and I think you know where this is going….

This kind ineptitude – murdering of the metaphor and strangling of the simile, of cliché ridden claptrap –  it took its toll on poetry.

Because Poetry could not stop for death He kindly stopped for Poetry

Yes, poetry is dead.  And the fact that you wouldn’t know a satirical take on an Emily Dickinson poem if it whisked you away to your Maker in a carriage is neither here nor there.  That poetry is dead is as clear as the skin on a Year 11’s face.

We might even ask, today, if it wasn’t the sheer ineptitude of MHS boys, was it plain ignorance that dealt poetry the mortal blow?

Let’s face it, the only Blake you guys know is the Lively blonde from Gossip Girl.  You think Yeats is a versatile range of horticultural supplies. The only Burns you have heard of is called Montgomery and you think Keats is a collective noun for geography teachers.

Whatever the case, the opposition will try to tell you Poetry lives.  They might try to pass something off as research.  Yes, “research”, you know: “Siri: is poetry dead?” In truth, they know nothing.  Their part in this collective ignorance will become apparent all too soon.

So…. let me school you.  You fools, you.  No more Captain My Captain. It got capped in the ass; it passed behind the arras; it lived but alas; Poetry stopped in its tracks:

Hip-hopped

K-Popped

End-stopped.

Mr Blair Mahoney, third speaker for the affirmative team:
Of course poetry is dead, and I have the proof right here in my last royalty cheque for Poetry Reloaded and Poetry Remastered. I may as well retitle them Poetry Refinanced. In fact, this isn’t even a cheque, it’s just a cheque sized piece of paper that I cut out to use as a prop, but even then it’s still worth only slightly less than the real thing.
The truth is, there’s even less money in poetry than there is poetry in money.

Do you know what the bestselling Australian poetry book was last year and how much its author earned? Would you be surprised if I told that that it was Les Murray’s New Selected Poems, which sold just 934 copies, earning its author the paltry sum in royalties of $1800? You should be surprised, because I just made that up, but the point stands that the term “bestselling poetry book” is an oxymoron. The last time anyone made some money from poetry was when Bill Shakespeare dedicated his sonnets to someone called W.H. and received 20 guineas, a small herd of livestock and a year’s supply of writing quills in payment.

Meanwhile, Eminem’s 2004 album Encore has sold more than five million copies thanks to lyrics like “I ain’t never seen an ass like that. The way you move it, you make my pee-pee go doing-doing-doing.’’ Apart from the fact that he clearly needs to see a doctor you can see why the author of lines like “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? / Thou art more lovely and more temperate,” would be turning in his grave in recognition of the fact that poetry is truly dead.

Alas poor poetry, I knew it, Horatio; a literary form of most infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.

The negative team has been trying to tell you that poetry isn’t dead, that it’s just resting, it’s stunned, or it’s pining for the fjords, but we know very well that it is no more, it’s ceased to be, it’s expired and gone to meet its maker. If they hadn’t nailed poetry to its perch it’d be pushing up daisies.

If I asked any of these supposed poetry lovers on the negative team who their favourite living poet was, they’d look flummoxed and then throw out a few names like Robert Frost (dead), Dylan Thomas (drank himself to death), Christopher Marlowe (stabbed in the eye in an argument over a bar tab), Sylvia Plath (stuck her head in the oven and gassed herself) or Edgar Allen Poe (found delirious in a gutter wearing another man’s clothes and died four days later). There was a reason the film was called ‘Dead Poet’s Society’…
The reason poetry is dead is because as much as we English teachers have tried to resuscitate poetry, to reanimate his corpse for the benefit and enlightenment of you students, you’ve spurned him. We’re not the villains here in this trial, as we gather round the fallen body of this once noble literary form. No, it’s you guys. You’re the ones that killed poetry. He used to be so full of life, so gay. And then we introduced him to you guys, and you started snickering about the word “gay.” We said, “Hey, calm down now. Poetry is great you just need to get to know him better to fully appreciate his charms.” And you started moaning about how “difficult” he was, how he just “didn’t make any sense.” And then we turned our back for a second and before we knew it you’d slammed poetry [pause] out of the window from the top floor of the N building and he was lying splattered on the concrete below. There’s no need to call in CSI for this case: you’ve got poetry’s blood all over your hands and a little water will not clear you of this deed.

If we’d had better students it could have been a different story. Come teach at Melbourne High, the brochures said. The smartest students in the state, Mr Ludowyke promised. So Mr Bryant and I gave up our lucrative positions in private schools and Ms Carroll winged her way home to Australia from England, a place where being able to quote a bit of John Donne is enough to land you a job as an investment banker. Here is educational utopia we thought. How wrong we were. Our efforts to share the delights of iambic pentameter were met with blank stares. Our hearts would lift a little at the sight of a raised hand only to plummet again when it turned out to be a request to go to the toilet. So many bladder problems amongst young men these days… Day after day we see poetry beaten down by the supposedly superior seductions of specialist maths and those websites where you can try to calculate your ATAR. Is it any wonder that poetry didn’t survive in the face of such callous indifference and literary ineptitude?

But poetry didn’t have to die. Occasionally we English teachers dream of a better world, one where people can quote lines from Seamus Heaney without shame, a world where people can rhyme… all the time, a world where poetic techniques such as similes live on, like something that lives for a really long time, a Galapagos turtle or something. At times we think we can even catch a glimpse of it, a place where the students aren’t afraid to study Literature for VCE because it means they have to read a few poems: it’s called Mac.Rob…

James Hayne was a student speaker for the negative team. (James is School Captain.)

Boys, poetry isn’t dead. It isn’t even dying. It’s simply being reloaded. Which brings me to the textbook reference for the reloading of poetry. Poetry reloaded by…. Wait a minute…. Mr Blair Mahoney. Today, I thought I’d theme my speech along the biblical words of Mr Mahoney himself.

Chapter 1: Poetry gets Started

It’s well known that poetry is like every schoolies trip. In the morning, poetry is fine. But by 3pm, poetry turns you to drink until you’re drunk and passed out on the floor. To prove this point, I’d like detail how my Sunday night went.

6:00pm: Opened Poetry Reloaded and read 2 pages.

6:05pm: Was bombarded with terms such as alliteration, analogy, near rhyme, metaphors and similes

6:06pm: Drunk half a bottle of vodka.

6:07pm: Wondered why the page had just turned green and chunky

6:08pm Passed out

8:00am the next morning: Woke up and realized that I’d have to battle through assembly while hung over

Some may wonder why I recounted those events. I’d like to submit today that poetry is a rite of passage. Having had Ms Carroll for English in Year 10, I know first hand how poetry changes your life. In year 10, Ms Carroll pushed me to ‘just let your feelings flow out onto the page’. And having done so, she then crushed my hopes of becoming a poet by saying ‘try to make your poem happier next time’. That’s when I realised what poetry was. It’s like Thursday’s Child, Death of a Salesman and Merchant of Venice. It’s part of the English curriculum just to infuriate you. And poetry only just got started.

Chapters 2 through 4: Mr Mahoney makes insightful commentaries about seemingly mindless poems.

One cannot tackle poetry without tackling poetry analysis. Poetry analysis is the singular most hated thing at MHS. Having read Mr Mahoney’s textbook, I realized what English teachers are employed to do – tell their students that everything has a deeper meaning.

I thought I’d provide three examples from Mr Mahoney’s textbook:

  • From the poem Daffodils by Wordsworth: ‘Continuous as the stars that shine and twinkle on the Milky way’. What did the poet mean when he wrote this? Ironically the poet is reflecting on the Syrian crisis. His use of the lexime ‘continuous’ explores the economic and social harms of the crisis. Further, the symbolism of ‘the milky way’ refers readers to the galactic impact of the crisis on ties between the USA and Syria.
  • From the poem The Stolen Child by Yeats: ‘to and fro we leap and chase the frothy bubbles’. What did the poet want the reader to feel when he wrote this? Obviously the poet wants the reader to reflect upon Guantanamo Bay. The use of phrasing such as ‘to and fro we leap’ exposes how ‘Guantanamo’ comes from the Algerian term ‘Guanlepo’ which means ‘to leap’. Yeat’s reference to the ‘frothy bubbles’ reveals how bubble baths are popular among inmates at the prison.
  • From the poem Love Song by Parker: ‘the ways are fair to his roaming feet’. What did the poet intend to do? Although many students believe she was reflecting upon the recent Chinese economic downturn, Parker was just talking about how there are many ways to walk to her husband.

Yet, as I conclude today, I thought it best to turn to one of Mr Mahoney’s many poetry activities. In Chapter 5: Poetry falls in love, Mr Mahoney suggests to his readers that they write a love poem. Having provided examples of love poems that could have the girls dropping to their knees at social next year, I decided to write one myself.

Love, by James Hayne as inspired the works of Bryant, Carroll and Mahoney

How do I love you? Let me count the ways.

Mr Mahoney you write textbooks of poetry

Filled with anaphora, pentameter and limerick that you set ablaze

As you 420 blaze it for many days

Ms Carroll you taught me how to analyse.

I made sure I filled my essays with word level analysis

I talked about symbolism, alliteration and caesuras until I agonized

Then, on my final exam, you gave me 12/25.

Mr Bryant you just look like verse.

When I think of poetry, I think of you

Because when you recite rhyme, your students disperse

As they realize that English simply cant worse.

Why do I love you? Of reasons, I only know three.

Students of MHS, poetry is like an STD.

It won’t kill you but it will bug you forever,

Because poetry will make you fail VCE.

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