Concentrated Meaning: Poetry as a Script for Living in this Coronavirus Time

29 May 2020

Welcome Back


How wonderful to have everyone back at school! The campuses feel alive again as our buildings and grounds resonate with youthful voices and laughter. We have a lot to catch up on, and much to be aware of as we both enjoy the company of all our students while keeping our strict hygiene controls in place. Thank you to all parents for your patience and perseverance though this very challenging time. We have much to look forward to as we return to normal schooling, and normal life. This week is also Reconciliation Week and we posted our own Glenaeon Acknowledgement of Country to mark this significant moment in the year. See School news below.

Poetry as a Script for Living in this Coronavirus Time

Sometime last year I was commiserating with a colleague in the staffroom about a pile of work that we both had still to do when it was already dark and late. Without thinking I just said:

And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

They are the final lines of Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, a poem taught to me and my class in Year 8 at Normanhurst Boys High by an American exchange teacher. They express exactly the frustration and exhaustion of knowing there is a pile of work still to do before rest.

Earlier in the day I was returning from driving a friend to the airport when I watched an enormous and perfect rainbow gradually stretch across Mascot and all points east. It was a magnificent sight which made me feel happy, and into my mind came the opening line of Wordsworth’s sonnet:

My heart leaps up when I behold a rainbow in the sky…,

The two moments on the same day reminded me of the very special power of poetry. Some things just need special words, and I needed them then. And how we need them now!!  I was reminded today of how much we need the boost that poetic words can bring as I read Vicki Laveau-Harvie in The Guardian (UK) describing her own feelings during COVID-19 time:

Walking home recently under grey skies, I stopped to watch the afternoon light fail. I could have looked at my phone for comfort, but I found myself instead listening to Shakespeare spooling through my mind, words not remembered since school but intact, beautiful, despairing:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time.

This was a gift. I breathed easier, bathed in the vitality of poetry, the saturation of meaning that gives it weight. The aptness. I needed this…

We all need it Vicki, and the power of a short and simple poem to uplift, to inspire, to heal a tired heart, is one of life’s mysteries. She calls poetry “concentrated meaning”, a good phrase to capture its intensity, and its power to transform difficulties like the coronavirus world which is having such an impact on our mental health and wellbeing:

Poetry may be the antidote to what many of us feel: we are glued to screens, numb with fear, lost in elastic expanses of time. Poetry’s density can steady us. It contains worlds.

Yes, worlds, and a script for living. At last, a mention of the power of poetry to help us through the coronavirus time.

Poetry is alive and well at Glenaeon. A Glenaeon education is also an education in the spoken word, in living poetry. From nursery rhymes in Kindergarten, through action verses and poems, ballads and narrative poetry, right up to Shakespeare and beyond in High school, poetry is learned by heart and spoken aloud, to experience its power and cadence.

We don’t just do poetry as an outcome in the subject of English, to tick off the Poetry Outcome in each stage of the English syllabus. Poetry for us is “concentrated meaning”, and learned by heart so that it becomes a gift for each student to carry through life.

Sadly, often today poetry is something to analyse for meaning, something to deconstruct and just to read, not speak out loud. Who then remembers those precious words and carries their power through life?

A few years ago the writer and columnist Nikki Gemmel wrote a piece in The Australian bemoaning the loss of learning poetry by heart:

My kids don't learn poetry by heart in their Aussie schools. In London they were forced to, for an annual, compulsory, school-wide competition. Five-year-olds were reciting mostly nursery rhymes but the older kids were diving into Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Lear. It was wonderful to witness. The sheer skill of it; the way their little minds would absorb the poem's rhythm, beauty, narrative muscularity. I wish they'd do something similar here…

Well Nikki, they do at Glenaeon. Here poetry is alive and well, and learnt by heart. The cadences can soothe our fears, give a voice to our deepest feelings, and a warmth to our hearts. In this coronavirus time, poetry with its concentrated meaning can give us nothing less than a script for living.

Hangout for the Homeless

Thank you to everyone who supported this project of a sleep out in support of homeless people last Saturday evening, and there are very many of you. It was intended as a small, humble project to remind us to think about others who are doing it tough in the pandemic, rather than a fund raising project as such. The main aim was to encourage some participation, and sleeping slightly rough was a simple gesture of solidarity with the homeless. With a signup fee of $5, I thought if we raised even $150 that would also be a great contribution to the cause.

The total raised so far this morning is $2,319. What an astonishing result! Special thanks to teachers who really challenged students our high school students to get behind the appeal, and did they ever do that!

My warmest thanks to all the many parents who donated, and/or slept rough on Saturday night, as a contribution to this very vulnerable community in our midst. We hope to stay in touch with Kids Under Cover and hear more of their good work.

Kids Under Cover is an organisation that helps prevent young people ending up on the streets in the first place. They work to support young people at risk of becoming homeless by providing simple accommodation close to the family home where the young person can be separate but secure. Space makes all the difference. They build and provide simple, small structures that are flat packed and can be erected in a day to provide studio accommodation in a back yard. They provide scholarships to get the young person back into education and the workforce. Over the past 25 years they have built hundreds of studios across Australia and assisted nearly 2,000 young people.