That was ridiculous and the school curriculum must include poetry by Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney, the great contemporary writers — but not only theirs. Dryden and Byron may be hard going but Chaucer, Donne, Henry Vaughan, Coleridge and Tennyson need not be. (Chaucer is not difficult once the basics of the language have been grasped and untying that knot is great fun.)
There is more to great poetry than any of this, but answering the question "Why?" is never easy. It seems like a cop-out to say, "I just know" but that is almost what Marilynne Robinson does say in one of the best replies to "Why?" I have ever read. In her recent novel Home, Glory, a former teacher, remembers her pupils asking, "Why do we have to read poetry? Why Il Penseroso?" and her reply is, "Read it and you'll know why. If you still don't know, read it again. And again. People have always made poetry. Trust that it will matter to you...It is like a voice heard from another room, singing for the pleasure of the song, and then you know it too, and through you it moves by accident and necessity down generations."
That is true of other things too, things which do not have immediate "use", true of myths and legends for example, from our own country and from round the world. If young people do not hear and learn poetry, myths, legends and ancient stories or read great fiction or see great plays they are being betrayed, short-changed and impoverished but they do not know it, they must take it on trust, as previous generations did. Not all of them will understand. But that is no excuse for not trying.
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