Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW
Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW

Poetry Professor urges scientists and engineers to explore poetry

Barry Spurr giving his talk after formal dinner

One of Australia’s leading authorities on poetry, Professor Barry Spurr, encouraged university students from scientific disciplines to read poetry when he spoke at the College on Wednesday 4 September 2013.

To whet the appetite of Warrane residents for poetry, Professor Spurr took his audience, which included many scientists and engineers, on a tour of some of the best examples of English poetry, including works of Shakespeare, John Milton, W. H. Auden, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Kenneth Slessor, Sylvia Plath, Gerard Manley Hopkins, W. B. Yeats and G. K. Chesterton.

The Director of the BA Advanced Honours degree at the University of Sydney and Chair of the university’s Board of the Faculty of Arts began by addressing the question of what poetry is.

Drawing attention to the 16th century essay by Sir Philip Sidney – the first literary critical essay in English literature – titled “An Apology for Poetry”, he said:

“Its essential teaching is that poetry is a superior form of communication to history and philosophy, and I suppose therefore other forms of discourse too, because it contains and it promotes and it communicates ‘delightful teaching’,” he said.

“The historians teach us by their narratives and analysis of the past, philosophers teach us also as they probe arguments and advance their own arguments and so on, but poets teach us delightfully. And it is the essence of delightfulness, in other words, the striking use of language, the beautiful use of language, the arresting use of language in a variety of forms, that draws us into the teaching of this or that poem.”

Another key point, in Sidney’s view, was that poetry “never affirmeth” .

“There seems to be a contradiction there,” Professor Spurr said. “On the one hand we’re saying that the poet teaches, teaches delightfully, but that he or she never affirms.

“So in other words, yes there’s teaching in poetry, but in the best poems the teaching is implied, is communicated obliquely. You have to search for it, and indeed you might find your own version of the teaching there as you come to live within a poem, which of course you must do.”

Professor Spurr said that one tends to return to the best poems and find not only that the meaning becomes clear, but that it becomes “more layered and more rich”, leading you return to the poem time and time again.

“(There is) the idea of poetry as the most refined and the most important language, in terms of communicating the great truths and experiences of human life of all kinds – of all the emotions and all of the thoughts that you can imagine,” he said.

“There will be a poem about anything you care to think about if you look far enough for it. And of course on some of the great themes such as faith and love and the tragic experiences of life – so many hundreds of poets have communicated their particular versions of these particular experiences.

“So it’s an inexhaustible store, and record of, human experience, which we would not want to be without, but not only would we not want to be without it, we also embrace it.”

Professor Spurr encouraged his listeners to “read a poem a day”, beginning by purchasing one of the anthologies of poetry.

“You don’t have to make your way laboriously through it,” he said, “but dip into it, learn to see how poetry can convey various ideas about life to you.”

The poems Professor Spurr selected to examine were chosen “fairly well at random”. He said he hadn’t chosen them with any particular idea that each one would embody a particular aspect of “delightful teaching”, but they were from different ages and in different forms.

They included Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 – “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” – Auden’s Musée des Beaux Arts, Hopkins’ Pied Beauty, Chesterton’s The Donkey, and Yeats’ The Second Coming.

Professor Spurr drew attention to the importance of rhythm and rhyme, irony, visualisation, the element of surprise in poetry and the key importance of personal experience.

Looking at Hopkins’ Pied Beauty, for instance, he spoke of the way that Hopkins was able to translate his own personal experience into a universal and divine one.

“Everything for Hopkins had a kind of divine vocation,” he said, “had a divine ‘thisness’ and importance that should be celebrated.

“So who would think that a tradesman’s tools would come into a poem that begins ‘Glory Be to God’, but there they are and a great poet, as Hopkins is, makes such things seem inevitable because the artistry convinces you that this should be there…”

If anyone needed convincing that scientists and engineers could have an interest in poetry, they would have been convinced by the enthusiastic response during the question and answer session. Many of the questions demonstrated more than a passing interest in poetry.

[Warrane College offers more than just accommodation to students at UNSW: Details of other guest speakers are available here]