Study Guide

Dead Poets Society Literature and Writing

Literature and Writing

MR. KEATING: We're not laying pipe. We're talking about poetry. […] I want you to rip out that entire page. […] Now, in my class, you will learn to think for yourselves again. You will learn to savor words and language. No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.

Mr. Keating shakes things up by having his students rip out the introduction to their poetry book. Why? Because it plotted the excellence of poetry on a graph, like some type of math equation. Instead, he wants the students to decide the value of a poem for themselves, and to enjoy themselves (savoring the words) while doing so. That makes reading sound like a treat, rather than a chore. Does it work?

MR. KEATING: Now I see that look in Mr. Pitts' eyes, like literature and poetry have nothing to do with going to business school, right? Maybe. Mr. Hopkins, you may agree with him, thinking "Yes, we should simply study our Mr. Pritchard and learn our rhyme and meter and go quietly about the business of achieving other ambitions." I have a little secret for you. Huddle up. Huddle up! We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race, and the human race is filled with passion. Medicine, law, business, engineering—these are noble pursuits, and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love—these are what we stay alive for.

It's true…what good is poetry going to do for a business school application, or to get into Harvard Law? The students have a hard time understanding why they have to study this stuff in order to be engineers or doctors. Mr. Keating's answer? Because poetry is what we stay alive for. It's like love and romance and all that good stuff: it makes life more beautiful. You might not be able to make much of a living writing or reading it, but you might enjoy your life more if you learn to enjoy poetry.

MR. KEATING: Language was developed for one endeavor, and that is… Mr. Anderson. Come on, are you a man, or an amoeba? (Todd doesn't answer) Mr. Perry?

NEIL: To communicate?

MR. KEATING: No. To woo women. Today we are going to be talking about William Shakespeare.

Considering the amount of love poetry—from Shakespeare to E.E. Cummings to Plath—that students read in school, a pretty compelling argument could be made that language is just a way to woo the object of our desire. It's certainly a good way to introduce Shakespeare, anyway. Mr. Keating is attempting to engage his students by presenting the old classics in a new light…in a way that might be more relevant for them. And what's more relevant to teenagers than matters of the heart?

MR. KEATING: Sometimes the most beautiful poetry can be about simple things, like a cat, or a flower, or rain. You see, poetry can come from anything with the stuff of revelation in it. Just don't let your poems be ordinary.

Mr. Keating wants the boys to understand that poetry can be accessible. It doesn't have to be about lofty subjects like love. Someone could write a good poem about a cat, or any other daily thing, as long as there's something "alive" within it. Give it a try sometime. When's the last time you had a revelation about a cat?

MR. KEATING: Mr. Anderson thinks everything inside him is worthless and embarrassing. Isn't that right, Todd, and that's your worst fear? I think you have something inside you worth a great deal. (Writes on the board) "I sound my barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the world." WW, Uncle Walt again. Now, for those of you that don't know, a "yawp" is a cry or yell.

In an effort to bring Todd out of his shell, Mr. Keating invokes Uncle Walt's words. The yawp is the thing inside of us, the barbaric cry that he, and Mr. Keating, want us to yell over the rooftops of the world. It's all about making your voice heard, and Todd finally is able to give it a try. What inspires him? Poetry, and someone telling him that his words have value.

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