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The Search for Meaning in Poetry at Senior Cycle

By Brendan O'Regan, Arklow CBS.

There are many paths we can travel to search for meaning with our students. Personally I find poetry a rich resource - our students are already studying it in their English classes, so why not stretch their appreciation of the course poetry a little more and do a little cross curricular work. Apart from the spiritual and academic benefits, the inspectors will be impressed!

When the new Leaving Certificate English course first came out I feared that all the fine spiritual poems from the old course had been excised, but Eliot, Kavanagh and Hopkins for example made their way back into the syllabus and have continued to appear on a cyclical basis.

Looking at the course for 2008, you couldn't go too far wrong with John Donne, if you can get students over the archaic language. Look at the confident statement of the power of love in The Anniversarie - if love is true, it can transcend death and live on into the next life - "a love increased there above And then wee shall be thoroughly blest". But he has a different reaction to the prospects of the next life in At the Round Earth's Imagin'd Corners - his sins weigh heavily upon him and he is not quite ready for judgement yet, so he rather cheekily asks God to hold off until he has time to repent - "But let them sleepe Lord, and mee mourne a space Teach mee how to repent". He has similar fears in Thou Hast Made Me - "death before doth cast such terrour", but knows that he must turn to God in his difficulties - "Repaire me now, for now mine end doth haste". In another poem a repair is not enough - he wants to be battered (metaphorically I hope!) - "Batter my heart , three-person'd God". Our students who are used to pious prayers may be quite taken aback by a prayer of such violence, a prayer that is so demanding of God - on the borderlines of cheek and confidence!

Philip Larkin's Church Going is certainly not devotional, but is worth a look - here the poet hasn't much time for religion, reckons that soon all church buildings will "fall completely out of use", and yet feels strangely drawn to churches, in these buildings, despite everything, he finds meaning in the modern world - "A serious house on serious earth it is,/In whose blent air all our compulsions meet someone will forever be surprising/A hunger in himself to be more serious gravitating with it to this ground". He returns to church in An Arundel Tomb, and again is ambiguous, certainly not as sure as Donne about the immortality of love - "Our almost-instinct, almost true:/What will survive of us is love". Yet in The Explosion, he celebrates a heavenly vision reportedly seen by wives of miners killed in a mine explosion: "The dead go on before us, they/Are sitting in God's house in comfort,/We shall see them face to face ". Admittedly he does distance himself from this somewhat by noting that this was a quote from the vision, but overall the poem is very positive.

Larkin is also on the 2009 course, which also features the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop. Her poem The Prodigal has an interesting, and respectful take on the Prodigal Son story. It may be a veiled treatment of her problems with alcohol ("he hid the pints behind a two-by-four"), but the familiar imagery is there - he tries to "endure his exile", as he works in the pigsty ("brown enormous odour the pigs' eyes followed him"). It may not end as positively as the Bible story, but there is hope - "it took him a long time/finally to make up his mind to go home".

For 2010 Eliot and Kavanagh will be back, and what better poem to study in the search for meaning than Eliot's Journey of the Magi, with its quest motif ("such a long journey"), the familiar uncertainties ("the voices singing in our ears, saying/That this was all folly"), the obstacles on the way ("the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly"), and the end of the quest, worthwhile ("I would do it again"), but with some hesitation ("it was (you may say) satisfactory"), as comfortable old ways have to give way to new an unfamiliar territory ("no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation").

And of course you could construct a whole module around Patrick Kavanagh - the search for lost childhood innocence in Advent ("charm back the luxury Of a child's soul"); the celebration of that childhood in A Christmas Childhood ("when we put our ears to the paling-post/The music that came out was magical"); the desire to "do the will of God" in Canal Bank Walk, searching for a way "To pray unselfconsciously with overflowing speech". There are just some of the poems that can lead to excellent discussions, as the poets' search for meaning mirrors or inspires the students' own individual and communal searches. Being attentive to what's on the current Leaving Cert Course is only one way to approach this topic - obviously one could use all these poems regardless of whether they're prescribed for a particular year (check the English section of slss.ie).

Some teachers might feel that for whatever reason they want to avoid the poetry being studied in Leaving Cert English, and there's a huge range of other material out there (including the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins who won't be back on the course until after 2010 at least), but that sounds like another article!

First published in the journal Teaching Religious Education