Thursday, August 13, 2009

Fairburn & Byron


What is there left to be said?
There is nothing we can say,
nothing at all to be done
to undo the time of day;
no words to make the sun
roll east, or raise the dead.

I loved you as I love life:
the hand I stretched out to you
returning like Noah’s dove
brought a new earth to view,
till I was quick with love;
but Time sharpens his knife.

Time smiles and whets his knife,
and something has got to come out
quickly, and be buried deep,
nor spoken or thought about
or remembered even in sleep.
You must live, get on with your life.

A R D Fairburn


So we'll go no more a-roving
So late into the night,
Though the heart still be as loving,
And the moon still be as bright.

For the sword outwears its sheath,
And the soul outwears the breast,
And the heart must pause to breathe,
And love itself have rest.

Though the night was made for loving,
And the day returns too soon,
Yet we'll go no more a-roving
By the light of the moon.

Lord George Gordon Byron

Word quickly got round that Inspector McQueen liked poetry. So I saw a lot of poetry lessons. Once a teacher read Byron's "So We Will Go More A’roving" and then Fairburn's "Farewell." It was a comparison I had made myself. It plucked a chord of nostalgia. Indeed I had talked about it at an in-service course. Clever teacher! I settled back prepared to watch an interesting lesson. Instead he said, "both poets use the same theme, but let's look for hidden meanings." The heave of the two poets turning in their graves was discernible. He found hidden meanings in those two simple poems I never dreamt could exist. They were not The Waste Land and it was irritating, watching the passion for poetry being stifled in this way.

When the kids left the room he said, "There. I know you like poetry. Went well didn't it?" After a noncommittal sound I commented something to the effect, why didn't he look at the obvious comparison between the end of two love affairs and different poetical responses. "A bright class, they see that straight away. It's the profundities I'm interested in."

I cursed T.S.Eliot as a role model all the way back to the principal's office. When it came to the grading I said "I can't support an increase, he's not as good as he thinks he is".The principal, doodling on his pad, rapidly looked up and said, "you blokes amaze me, if anyone could pull the wool over your eyes it would have been him. A con-artist from way back."

It was not all bad news. Poetry well taught was amongst the best lessons observed. Nearly always Baxter and Tuwhare engaged attention and discussion. Another impression I gained was how popular Wilfred Owen's poems were. Rachel McAlpine’s contemporary research confirmed my observation. They were safe poems to present in front of an inspector, soldiers frantically scrabbling for their gas masks, the disabled remembering the trenches, that unanswerable question at the end of Futility, "what made fatuous sunbeams toil/ to break earth's sleep at all"; certainly so in the post Vietnam War era. The kids responded well to them.

I wonder how many of the seeds of New Zealand's late 1980s anti-nuclear policy were laid down by English teachers in the previous decade. It was not just Owen. Many lessons were observed about the horrors of the First World War based upon the writings of people like Graves and Sassoon. If my generation had the imperial writers, Newbolt, Brooke, Buchan and Kipling, this one had the trench writers. The heroes of my youth, Alan Quartermain, Lord Jim, Sydney Carlton personified issues of sacrifice, duty and service. These students were learning an anti-authority message.

Likewise in History and Social Studies I saw many lessons on apartheid and South Africa. Cry the Beloved Country was one of the most popular set English texts. Again, I observed the 81 Springbok tour protests in the making. But I saw very few lessons on race relations in New Zealand. Teachers used a safe distancing in their content selection.

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