The Road Not Taken: thoughts on poetry

In support of National Poetry Month, I’m arguing that the best thing we can do to support poetry in our schools in abandoning the dreaded “poetry unit.” This is more geared towards teachers, poets, and poetry lovers, but look to what librarians can do to foster poetry appreciation in their school cultures. (As the librarian here, I also used to teach a Humanities course that heavily relied to poetry to teach cultural literacy components. And I sponsor the poetry slam group. I’m guessing that others have similar experiences of “reach” beyond the library walls.) Teach poetry throughout the year, use it to support class texts, and teach contemporary poets along with the classics. Poetry’s marginalization is not new. 19th century British author Thomas Hardy went so far as to say, “If Galileo had said in verse that the world moved, the Inquisition might have left him alone.” Hardy himself turned to poetry when public scrutiny of his novels proved too stressful. Complexity, foreign styles, and allusions are perceived as barriers instead of points of access or integral elements of the text.  Many individuals who otherwise are well-educated in the arts don’t read poetry.  Poetry is one of the vital keys to deeper literacy, an opportunity to experience words as substance, rather than words whose purpose is to lead somewhere.

Children instinctively respond to the rhythm of poetry.  Infants react to rhythms: intuitively in heartbeats, auditorily in lullabies, and physically in rocking. The pattern or rhythm is familiar and comforting, and it is a predictive learning tool.  Even new rhythms and rhymes seem familiar because one knows what to expect.  When one thinks of children’s rhymes, sound is imperative.  Meaning is secondary.  They are an auditory, and often a social, phenomenon.  Poems often involve physical activity, like freefall, finger-counting, or touching various body parts.  Adults still remember Humpty Dumpty and “eenie meenie, minee, mo.”  Elementary age children enjoy poems with rhythm and meaning, such as Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein.  Great children’s poets are masters at surprising children with the innovative ways they use words within the structure of patterned language, creating a sense of “unknowable mystery,” a mix of clarity, directness, and mystery.  Poetry is an enjoyable experience that children actively seek.  Somewhere between childhood and adolescence, however, appreciation of literature in general and poetry in particular drops.

Schools have been utilizing “the poetry unit” for far too long.  The poetry unit is characterized by intensive study of poetry for several weeks of the school year, often incorporating poetry writing prompts (or exercises), to teach literary devices and speech patterns.  It is as though there is a poetry box; teachers take poetry out, puzzle the pieces together, and put the finished product away until next year’s unit.  Poetry is a complex and varied genre.  The poetry unit simplifies poetry by presenting a few “representative” examples during a short time period and using them to teach other literary skills.  The poetry unit is often used in conjunction with the DAM approach-dissecting, analyzing, and memorizing poetry.  Students read the poems, break them into their primary components, and analyze.  In order to measure memorization and speech skills and to provide intimate knowledge of the mechanics of one poem, teachers will assign poems for students to memorize and recite to the class.  Librarian and poet Baron Wormser believes that requiring students to memorize specific poems, not of their choosing, is particularly harmful to teenagers.  Students memorize the poem and drag it through adulthood as an “unhappy totem” reminding them that they don’t need more poetry because they already carry poetry with them.  Memorization combines with a focus on a poem’s structure, its sound, meter, and grammar, to produce a superficial lop-sided understanding of poetry.

Schools that successfully demonstrate excellence in poetry instruction share similar characteristics.  These are enumerated in appendix one-Engaging teenagers with poetry: Ten practical teaching approaches.  Most importantly, poetry is integrated into the curriculum, throughout the year, in most classes.  While Spanish classes might use poetry to teach language skills and history teachers might use poetry to provide a particular perspective on a historical event, poems must also be allowed to stand on their own merits.  They require characterization as art, not just as teaching tools.  Students can approach them and appreciate them on their own merits, not as representations of the Spanish hyperbole or the Vietnam War.  Poems should be presented out loud and in print.  A range of poems should be presented, classic and modern, humorous and serious, long and short, narrative and descriptive, local and international.  It is important that teachers are comfortable with the genre of poetry before broaching the subject with their students and that they find poems they personally enjoy.   Teachers need to recognize that not all poems will resonate with all students, but teenagers should be able to state, using form or content from the text, what worked or did not work for them in a specific poem.  Class discussion should analyze poems, teaching the skills of critical thinking, but stopping before scrutinizing a poem to death.  Since reading professional poetry and writing one’s own poetry hone distinct proficiencies, both should be taught.  Writing prompts are good beginnings, conducting students past initial trepidations as they stare at blank sheets of paper.  Student writing needs to extend beyond self expression, using revision to carefully shape each poem.  Evaluation should be thoughtful and honest, clarifying strengths and weaknesses about the student’s success using poetic forms.  Poetry should be evaluated, but whether by grade or by extensive commentary is less important that that the student knows his work is going to be carefully considered.  The goals of a good high school poetry program are that teenagers will leave the school with a solid introduction to the types of poetry that have been produced, will have developed a taste for certain types of poetry, will be able to think critically about poetry, will be able to speak intelligently about poetry with others, and will anticipate choosing to read poetry for pleasure during their adult lives.

I love the diatribe that children’s poet Karla Kuskin wrote in poem form against overanalyzing and dissecting poetry.

If I were to introduce you to someone I care for
I might say
“This is my friend Sue
I like her very much and therefore
I hope you will like her too.”
after your meeting with Sue
I would not ask you to explain
her psychological and chemical makeup
or the genetic reason her eyes are 1/3 grey
and 2/3rds blue,
nor would I demand an interminable essay
on Sue’s ethnicity
blood pressure
taste in furniture
or home.
that’s the way I feel about poetry.
If I want to introduce a poem to you,
I will simply open up a book and say
“I would like you to meet a friend of mine.
My friend happens to be a poem.”
(And you leave your dissecting tools at home.)

Clearly this is an area of personal passion to me, and I have many (too many) more recommended readings, prompts, poetry books, etc. If you have a particularly interesting way that poetry is integrated into your curriculum, I’d love to hear it!

 Selected References:
 Cobb, Barbara Mather. (2006). Playing with poetry’s rhythm: Taking the intimidation out of scansion. English Journal 96(1), 56-61.
 Griswald, Andrea. (2006). Assessment lists: One solution for evaluating student poetry. English Journal 96(1), 70-75.
 Hopkins, Lee Bennett. (1998). Pass the poetry, please. New York: Harper Collins.
 Lies, Betty Bonham. (1993). The poet’s pen: Writing poetry with middle and high school students. Englewood, CO: Teacher’s Ideas Press.
 Longenbach, James. (2004). The resistance to poetry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
 Ornstein, Allan C., Lasley II, Thomas J., & Mindes, Gayle. (2005). Secondary and middle school methods. New York: Pearson.
 Philip, Neil, ed. (1996). New Oxford book of children’s verse. New York: Oxford University Press.
 Thompson, Linda, ed. (1996). Teaching of poetry: European perspectives. United Kingdom: Redwood Books.
 Wolf, Dennie Palmer. (1988). Reading reconsidered: Literature and literacy in high school. New York: The College Board.
 Wormser, Baron & Capella, David. (2004). A surge of language. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

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