More thoughts coming soon on my dramatic change in grading policy! (I sound like an advertisement…)
In the meantime, I’ve just finished teaching a poetry unit and thought I’d share some ideas.
The first time I taught a poetry unit to high school students a few years ago, I knew I was in for a rough time. I remembered how much I hated poetry when I was in high school (even though I loved reading challenging prose like Augustine and Dostoevsky). Indeed, from the moment I uttered the word “poetry” in connection to our next unit of study to my kids, I got so many groans and eye-rolls that I briefly considered skipping the thing altogether.
What helped me most was reflecting on the reasons I used to hate poetry. They were pretty straightforward and can pretty much be summed up by one idea:
I hated that poets were being difficult and obscure on purpose.
As a relatively open-minded high school student, I could forgive Shakespeare for the fact that his language reflected the 16th century and even Hawthorne for his interminable sentences and hopelessly flowery diction – he was a 19th century Romantic, after all. Charles Dickens was making money to support himself for every unnecessary descriptive paragraph he wrote in Great Expectations, and I could even forgive Flannery O’Connor and Faulkner for their mysterious and disturbing characters and plot twists.
I could not, however, forgive Emily Dickinson for her inexplicable dashes.
Nor e. e. cummings for his annoying rejection of simple capitalization and punctuation.
Nor Sylvia Path for her confessional whining.
Nor, especially, William Carlos Williams for his infuriating wheelbarrow.
What made things much worse was the fact that I felt like my high school English teachers were demanding that we find the “deeper meaning” of these stupid puzzles. But of course I had no idea what Emily meant by her “Certain Slant of Light” nor what “One Art” Miss Elizabeth Bishop was referring to nor why Edgar Allan Poe was so obsessed by some lady named “Annabelle Lee”. And yet my teachers seem to think the answers were obvious.
Like many other high school teachers, several of mine insisted upon psycho-analyzing the poets and explaining their weird defiance of all common sense writing by praising them for their “revolutionary” challenge of the “patriarchal norms” of the English language. Apparently, I was supposed to appreciate poetry and like the fact that these dysfunctional people called poets couldn’t just say what they meant like everyone else.
After thinking about my own hatred of poetry as a high school student, I saw at once that I would have to develop a different approach with my own kids.
I must not demand that they appreciate poetry, nor that they be expected to know what Wallace Stevens was up to, nor even understand it in the common sense of the word “understand.”
But my University of Dallas Junior Poet educated self, who had fallen in love eventually with Emily Dickinson and Richard Wilbur and W. H. Auden, was also unwilling to let them just rhyme along with Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seuss.
The key to teaching poetry is answering the question how.
How can we help our kids get inside a poem?
How can we help them admire (even if they do not necessarily like) the games poets play with language?
How can we help them respect poetry even if they do not understand it?
Marianne Moore, in her famous meta-poem “Poetry,” observes that “we do not admire what we cannot understand.” So how do we help them understand without demanding that they tackle the impossible?
I start with this poem by Billy Collins, which says better what I am getting at than anything else I have read:
Introduction to Poetry by Billy Collins
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.Billy Collins, “Introduction to Poetry” from The Apple that Astonished Paris. Copyright � 1988, 1996 by Billy Collins. Reprinted with the permission of the University of Arkansas Press.
Source: The Apple that Astonished Paris (1996)
2 thoughts on “On Teaching Poetry”
This is a great topic to take up.
My first addition to what you’ve said would be, it matters a lot which poems you introduce them to! “The best poems for introducing students to poetry” is probably not the same thing as “the best poems.” For example, I quite like The Waste Land, but I’m not sure anyone who doesn’t already care about poetry will get much out of it.
One possible approach–though I don’t know how well it would work–would be to start with poems that were more like other genres they’re familiar with: short-story-like poems (e.g. half of everything by Frost), or song-like poems (e.g. Yeats’ or Auden’s ballads), for example; then try to get them to see how specifically poetic techniques (significant rhymes, enjambment, rhythmic variation, etc) contribute to how the poems achieve their effect. Once they get a sense for *why* poets might do strange things sometimes, you can shift to more “poetic” poems.
The problem is, I suspect this process takes too much time to be practical in a normal school setting. It would require gradually exposing students to more and more “poetic” poetry over the course of many months, maybe even years. Moving from ballads one week to modernist poetry the next, so as to get through a unit on “poetry in general” the way you get through a unit on a novel, is just going to make them (think they) dislike all poetry.