Poetry plan: 1

An area of knowledge that I ashamed about, given that I have an English degree and teach the subject, is poetry.

I never really read poetry at school, studying only a few war poems during secondary school and one anthology at A-Level. By the time University started, I didn’t feel that I had the toolkit to analyse, or appreciate, poetry. So I purposefully avoided studying it. Yes, I was lazy. I chose the easy option.

Over the past year I have accumulated a number of poetry anthologies, and flicked through a few of them. I have also taught students some poetry analysis skills – which was helpful in developing my own.

Recently I bought several books that can be regarded as good ways into understanding and appreciating poetry:

  • Poetry in the Making – Ted Hughes
  • An Introduction to English Poetry – James Fenton
  • The Secret Life of Poems – Tom Paulin
  • 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem – Ruth Padel
  • The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within – Stephen Fry.

It is interesting to note that all of the above have written poetry – even though Stephen Fry’s is not published – suggesting that the ability to understand and appreciate poetry is potentially linked to the ability to write it. As for which comes first, I’m not sure. I think they will grow and develop together.

I started with Fry’s book, partly because it was at the top of the pile, and partly because I have a little basic knowledge about poetry and was intrigued by part of the title that says it would unlock “the poet within”, at that point in the day I was feeling particularly creative.

When I read the main text, the main text ends up sounding like Fry reading it to me; my mind is playing tricks on me. I’ve only read the introduction and the first section of the first chapter.

The introduction was brilliant. It really fits with where I am, right now, on this journey. Throughout, Fry makes comparisons between poetry and another of other creative pursuits and hobbies. While not necessarily inspiring, he is differently motivational, not just in making you think that you can begin to understand the technicalities of poetry and appreciate it, but that you can begin to write it.

Of course, just reading the introduction doesn’t really mean that I have any more understanding of poetry than before. However, the first chapter is about metre, and Fry gives a far clearer explanation of metre than I’ve previously been given. He doesn’t just refer to how metre is used to construct poetry, he refers to common aspects between metre and speech, metre and music.

On a different note… When I read a non-fiction book, I keep a pen and paper nearby.  The main quotation I made from the introduction is this:

In an open society everything the mind and hands can achieve is our birthright. It is up to us to claim it.

I’ve watched a fair few motivational videos on YouTube and listened to a few more motivational speeches. This quotation, to me, sounds like something that would fit right into one of those.

The quotation also encapsulates my attitude towards this journey: if I, or you, want to become a true polymath, the only that stopping us is ourselves.


More than just soundbites

It is quite easy to sound and appear intelligent; it is easy to make people believe that you are knowledgeable about all sorts of things.

After all, Google and Wikipedia are just a click, a tap, or a button away. Amazon and most physical bookstores stock the entirety of the For Dummies and A Very Short Introduction series. If one wanted to just appear clever, all they would have to do is read these books and spout small bits of information at the right times.

For example, the other night I was woken up by a noise. It was about 4am. I listened for a  few minutes. I was awake because the noise seemed out of place; a strange scream from a child. Clear that it was not a danger, I returned to sleep. In the morning I searched the internet for animal sounds. After a brief search for a fox call, I decided it would probably be a bird. Owls being the most famous nocturnal birds, they seemed a good place to start. The sound was the same as the third call I listened to: a Tawny Owl. More specifically, it was the call of a female Tawny Owl. The YouTube clip below gives an idea of what it sounds like. The one I heard was similar, but much much louder.

When I saw my housemate, I asked if they had been woken up by a noise during the night. They said that they hadn’t, but when I said it sounded a bit like a child screaming, they admitted that they had woken up and just assumed it was a cat. When I told them that it was a female Tawny Owl, they looked at me like I had several heads. From their surprised look and their subsequent response (“What does the male sound like?”) I can assume that they thought I knew a lot more than I actually do. My response to their question also added to my supposed knowledge (if you want to hear the male Tawny Owl, it should appear after the video above).

The above use of a quick Google, which I did not tell my housemate, meant that I was able to create an aura of intelligence.

Unfortunately, it is all to easy to do this. If I just wanted to create a polymathic façade, I could just read those books previously suggested. After all, that would make me, assuming I could retain the information, a reasonably intelligent and well-informed person. But, personally, I wouldn’t feel that I was actually a polymath.

This is because I would only have a very basic understanding of a lot of areas. These books are called For Dummies and A Very Short Introduction for a reason: they assume that the reader has little or no prior knowledge. As such, the books aim to provide a very basic grounding in the topic.

I am interested in a more “deep learning” style of understanding. I do not mean the computer science concept of “deep learning” which is a branch of machine learning (here, I guess that I am also using a bit of information – I know enough about these things to state that this is not what I mean, but that does not mean I have much of a clue what they are!) but the concept that originates with research by Marton and Säljö. A basic definition and outline of their concepts can be found on good old Wikipedia (link goes straight to the article.) In this sense, I am not seeking to “reproduce” the information for a “test” – in this case using it as a soundbite in a conversation to show intelligence – but to “understand” the information.

Now that I’ve spent a few hundred words explaining how the For Dummies and A Very Short Introduction series can lead to the creation of a polymathic façade, I’m now going to be a little hypocritical and say that I will probably read some, or all, of them during my polymath journey.

This is because they aren’t bad books. They do provide a valuable introduction and provide  a level of understanding that can be used as prior knowledge when I access more specialist books and knowledge areas, so that I can have more than just soundbites.

What other books and series have you found to be good introductions to different topics? Let me know in the comments!


How will this work then?

I’m aiming to post at least once a week on here. I’ll post a summary of things that I’ve read (which I’ll add to a reading list page) and things that I’ve learnt. I’ll try to go into detail on a thing that I’ve learnt.

The main purpose of this site is to document my journey, and there are several reasons for doing this. One is to show to people that you can continue to learn as you go through adulthood, another is to inspire other people to continue to learn in their lives. Another is to prove to the world that I am actually undertaking this journey and to become credible. So I guess part of it is a little self-centred: to show off.

Polymath: The Beginning

I once had to do a “Subject Knowledge Audit” every few months on a course that I did. We were given a list of topics and we had to rate our current knowledge of them and then create an “Subject Knowledge Improvement Plan” for how we were going to develop our knowledge and understanding.

This post is sort of that. However, rather than going into details for every potential subject, I’ll just give some brief details.

11 GCSEs, most at grade A. Four were at grade B… the most important of the B grades is my Maths.

4 A Levels: ABBC (subjects in the grade order): Economics, Combined English Language and Literature, Art, History.

1st Class BA (Hons) Degree in English from the University of Hull. I was quite lucky with this. The format of my degree allowed me to study some linguistics modules, as well as a foreign film module. I also did a couple of business modules.

PGCE Secondary English at the University of Cambridge. Although most of the time was spent teaching, I did learn a little more about the science of learning (something that I am extremely interested in) as well as pedagogy and psychology.

I have no prior music experience.

My sports knowledge and experience is almost non-existent.

That’s the bare bones of it. That’s where I’m starting from.

Let’s see where I can go!


The pursuit of polymathy

How does one go about becoming a polymath? I don’t know.

Can you just decide to become a polymath? I don’t know. But I don’t see why not.

Am I massively underestimating how hard this is going to be? Definitely.

Do I know how I’m going to get there? No, not really.

I have a vague idea though.

Reading books is obviously a good start. A heck of a lot of information can be found in books. Even more can be found on the internet.

The internet, and the rise of MOOCs, should also make the process easier. If I want to gain an intermediate to relatively advanced understanding of numerous topics, completing a number of MOOCs would help with this. This is because many MOOCs are versions of modules from degree programs.

I am unsure yet whether to focus on one topic a year – let’s face it, becoming a polymath takes a lifetime – or whether to learn multiple things at once.

I’ll sleep have to think about it.