How to Read Poetry. A Prize Day address, West Cornwall School for Girls, Penzance
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630 ] How to Read Poetry. A Prize Day address, West Cornwall School for Girls, Penzance On the afternoon of 3 June 1938, after giving the Prize Day address at the Truro Methodist Boys School that morning (5.623), TSE was the principal speaker at the West Cornwall prize-giving in St. John’s Hall, Penzance. The invitation to add Penzance to his Truro visit had come before 15 Mar, when he wrote to the Rev. H. B. Workman of the Methodist Education Committee that he was “still terrified to think of inventing two distinct speeches for one day, boys in the morning and girls in the afternoon.” The proceedings and a summary with quotations from TSE’s address were reported as “Welcome to Famous Poet” in the Penzance Evening Tidings of 3 June (3). The headmistress, E. H. Killip, said that “the platform had borne in the past the weight of men distinguished in many walks of life, but never before that of a great poet – the poet of the generation – whose verse the most eloquently, and for many the most faithfully, portrays the complexity and the disillusionment of their present baffled and war-weary world.” Describing the work of the School, she announced that “a paper on the poems of T. S. Eliot by Miss Gadd was followed by a great demand for borrowed copies of that writer’s work.” TSE was thanked on the motion of Rev. F. H. Pritchard, chairman of the Cornwall Methodist District. You may know that I have been talking at Truro this morning: for which reason I wish to remark first that I am now going to talk about something quite different. That is not because I draw any distinction of subject matter or of manner, in addressing a different audience. It is simply that both occasions seem to me too important, to say the same thing twice − and on such an occasion, a talk may go sour quicker than milk on a hot day. So this afternoon I propose to talk about the one subject which I am generally supposed to know something about: I want to say something about “how to read poetry.” There may be some of you who don’t like to read poetry: indeed, I sometimes incline to believe that poetry is something which everybody writes, and nobody reads. But even to those who neither read nor write it, I hope I may have a few ideas to offer: only they will have to listen very attentively to find out what they are. If you have begun by listening attentively, you will have noticed that I have already said: “how to read poetry,” and not “what to read.” These are two quite different things, and they correspond to two important aspects [ 631 How to Read Poetry of education: the outer and the inner. Or, to what is done to you, and what you do to yourselves. In our classes in English literature certain texts are prescribed for us which we have to read. This is very necessary, but I think we often feel, say about a particular play of Shakespeare or poem of Milton, that we might have enjoyed it if we had not been obliged to study it. The poems which we study in this way have to be selected from among the greatest classics, and yet just for that reason may be those which need the most knowledge and experience before we can really appreciate them. How to enjoy poetry is not what we learn primarily in classes: what we learn there is how to understand a poem as occupying a particular place in the history of English (or some other) literature, and how to understand it in relation to the time and environment in which it was written. On the side on which it can be studied formally, poetry, and all literature, is a part of history; and we need to study it for the same reasons for which we study history. But for the enjoyment of poetry you have to start, so to speak, from yourself: and as we are no two of us quite alike, there is no programme of reading which can be laid down for any two people. You will never get very far, of course, in enjoying poetry if you only read what you have to read for examinations; and you have to begin by reading it simply because you do enjoy it, and without any thought of its doing...