Some poets speak across the centuries in an open and understandable way to most people. When I was teaching, being old school I wanted my students to have a an education without too many borders and boundaries, for subjects to relate to each other, for flights of fancy on my part or theirs to take off and wing their way around the classroom freely. Broad and balanced, indeed… not always sure about relevant, it depends what you deem as relevant!
I wanted my students to understand that fundamentally, people as human beings do not change whether they lived ten years ago, two hundred years ago, three thousand years ago, mothers would love their children, lovers would desire each other and people would fall out with each other, or make up with each other or moan about whoever was governing them as they do today. They would sing, and laugh, and cry and appreciate beautiful things, and mostly have a natural desire to help others – I’ve seen the toughest and most abusive kid rush to help an elderly lady who had taken a tumble, or assist another kid in a wheelchair…
So… when I was choosing poems to use with the students I taught in the pupil referral unit where I taught (a unit for young people who struggled for various reasons in main stream education, most of them having been rejected by schools, and many of them struggling with other problems and issues) I wanted to find poems which would ‘speak’ to them. Some teachers seem to think young people like this want ‘relevant ‘ poems, poems about deprivation and abuse because that’s what these kids know, about violence and life on the edge, because that’s where they live. Some teachers think such students want ‘accessible’ poetry, as if the fact that kids’ language might be foul and abusive, their attitudes intolerant and extreme, means they have no intelligence, no wit, no knowledge, no understanding, no compassion or feeling.
Nonsense, you reactionary teachers! These young people are amazing! They are fantastic! Their experiences which are sometimes dreadful and almost unbelievable allow them to understand much more than you seem to think!!
Sorry… I’m on a bit of a hobby-horse here, but I am trying to show how I chose poems to teach my so-called unteachable students. What is on the minds of most young people? Finding another young person to have a relationship with… maybe romantically, maybe sexually, and usually they wanted both. So casting round for a poem I thought of Andrew Marvell who was born about 370 years before my students. Could they cope with the language? Of course they could! Just to cut down a few barriers, when I wrote out the poem for them I substituted ‘thou’ with ‘you’, ‘thine’ with ‘your’ for example, and just check they understood some of the vocabulary before giving them the poem. They understood it completely, it was just what most of them had experienced, trying to get the one they fancied into bed, sweet-talking them with promises, isn’t it what most current music and most rom-coms are about?
So here it is, written in the 1650’s by Andrew Marvell:
To His Coy Mistress
Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, Lady, were no crime
We would sit down and think which way
To walk and pass our long love’s day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find: I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the Flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow;
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, Lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.
But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song: then worms shall try
That long preserved virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust:
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.
Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may,
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapt power.
Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.
by Andrew Marvell