Literacy is often conceived in terms of using language to function in the world and to communicate orally and in written form for a range of situations, purposes and audiences, employing a variety of digital and media forms. School literacy programs are build around this functional notion of literacy which goes back to linquists such as Halliday.
There is nothing wrong with that conceptualisation of literacy; after all we need to be functional and we need to be able to participate and to have agency in the world. To be citizens, and to affect change, is dependent on literacy and the currency that it brings.
But that is not the end of the story. It is not all that literacy is about. Thank goodness there is more.
Literacy is, at its core, an affordance (or a set of affordances) with using language that enables us to create as well as be functional. And in this creation, in this dabbling with words, there is joy, reflection and a discovery about ourselves as human beings in a troubled and complex world.
So, what has literacy got to do with poetry?
Poetry is language use in its most creative, distilled and elemental form. Poetry is steeped in emotion and thought, is build on description and is carried in the rich vein of meanings associated with words and the character of words.
Through poetry all dimensions of human experience and engagement with self and the world can be accessed and shared. As such, it might well be useful for emotional intelligence, as well as literacy. To put it another way, in reading and writing poetry, in using and exploring the language forms of poetry, we code and decode these shared human meanings and explore what is quintessential in being human. That is a thrilling enterprise and a literacy-enhancing process, in my opinion.
Indeed, in poetry we are able to transcend the ordinariness of the world and savour that transcendence in words that distill our human experience and contain all that makes up the human condition.
What I am suggesting, then, is that to write and to speak poetry is to be literate in the deepest and most profound sense of the word: beyond mere function to the realms of originality, self-expression, contestation and the evocation of shared meanings about the profundity of human existence. This is the place of higher order thinking and critical engagement; this is the space for trying out language and discovering its potential for communicating the complexities of human life and experience.
Now, however, I want to come back to the functional nature of literacy that I referred to earlier: back to literacy as the ability to negotiate and live effectively in the world through the communicative power of language. How might poetry contribute to this being-in-the-world as a literate and functional person?
For a start, in writing and reading poetry (and I hope that many of us will) there is a focus on the nuances of language and on the impact of individual words (their connotations and inflections), unlike, arguably, any other genre of writing. In selecting words to fit structurally in a poem, or in seeing how words and sets of words operate phonologically in a poem, there is, in my opinion, greater cognitive, semantic and emotional operativeness. As such, poetry fosters deep encounter with the possibilities in language such that the skills in using language are enhanced and extended. In other words, you are more functional in literacy terms if you engage with poetry.
Moreover, the power of language, and its ability to shape opinion and feelings, is seen in all its capacity in poetry. By writing, reading and speaking poetry I believe that this understanding of the force of language, and how even one word can affect meaning in a situation, is best learnt.
You might well say at this point that poetry is really an elite or little read form and that writing poetry is just the territory of that strange bunch of people we call poets. However, let me point out that poetry is everywhere: in songs, raps, commercials, novels, blogs and children’s books, to name but a few. It is the most ancient and enduring form of literature. Perhaps it is the language that is closest to our consciousness as a species.
Let me finish by saying that literacy is crucial for the wellbeing of a society as a whole and for the capacity of every person to function effectively in that society. It facilitates the democratic process and is essential for prosperity.
That being the case, and accepting that poetry enhances literacy in the way I have described it, I want to be bold in my affirmation of poetry as a powerhouse in literacy practice. I want to say this: let us all indulge in poetry and enjoy its emancipative qualities.
Let the politicians echo it in parliament.
Let it be spoken in board rooms and in tea rooms across the nation.
Let it ring in all its rhythms in school classrooms and lecture halls.
Let us all get on the literacy bandwagon and write, speak and read poetry.
Let its rhymes and sounds echo in our thoughts, so that we can indeed have a more literate society.