Poetry Foes (And Woes)

Some students aren’t shy about hating poetry—they use so many words:

“I… hate… poetry…”

I keep cool because they may be suffering through some turmoil (I teach high schoolers) or they may be revealing some scar (resentment over a previous poetry encounter is common) or they may be baiting me (they do that).  I nod sympathetically and work on transforming their loathing into something more manageable and specific like “I find poetry daunting” or “I’m not sure how to read poetry” or “I object to the idea that every poem has a solution I don’t get” or “I don’t enjoy poetry as much as fiction” or “Poetry makes me feel reality isn’t as clear, steady, and understandable as I’d like it to be.”

To their credit, they usually leave these conversations admitting they speak only for themselves and accepting it’s O. K. for people like me to love poetry—even to write it, if that’s the crazy thing you’re into.  Some students promise to try harder to tolerate it.

But I leave with a question: can I convince a student how to feel?  Strong emotions resist persuasion, and, like spatters of oil on fabric, they resurface, gathering whatever dirt is around to make themselves known again.

Many teachers now settle for “exposing” students to poetry.  They throw in a quick poem now and again before the business of class or create a poetry unit from the leftover week at the end of the term.  These teachers celebrate the genre’s flexibility.  If any other study goes over or goes longer, poetry can always give.

Sometimes I wish I could see it so modularly.  One of my students’ favorite fallback positions is saying it’s not poetry they hate, but analyzing it.  They tell me,  “Poetry wouldn’t be so bad if you could just read it and move on” or “Poetry isn’t meant to be analyzed, and, besides, don’t poems mean whatever you think they mean?”  One of my students compared studying poetry to explaining a joke to make it funny—both are futile.

Trouble is: I enjoy scrutinizing poetry, and what students call “analysis” I call reading closely, carefully, appreciatively.  Some poems I may read once, say  “hmmm,” and move on, but others beg exploration and discussion.  And I’m not talking about dissection—which few students have the training to do anymore anyway—or finding a specific, concrete answer for the poem.  I’m talking about why one word or image appears instead of another or what implications might arise from this collection and sequence of lines.  By “analysis,” I mean noticing details that give this poem its full effect.  I mean learning to read more observantly next time.

Are poets really offended by our attention to particulars?

Perhaps I’m oversensitive to the haters, but I often find myself sneaking up on poems so students won’t recognize what’s happening.  I urge them to read aloud for maximum impact, and then engage them in a discussion of what that impact is.  I go around the room having each student select an image that struck him or her hard, and then ask what their collection tells us.  I have them picture the poem as a video and then discuss what their choices suggest.

These methods are fun and push a class some distance into poems, but I’m tiptoeing.  And the poor students who think they may love poetry as much as I do tiptoe as well, fearful their analysis will brand them as too earnest or sincere.

I won’t even get into discussing what happens when you ask a class to write poetry, except to say that, if the assignment is of any consequence, it’s ugly.

You can say my frustrations are an age-old debate writ-small—what the teacher wants versus what students want.  I accept that.  I’m sure some of my English department colleagues wish I’d just get over it already and give up being the designated we-don’t-do-enough-poetry crank.  Honestly, I wish I could resist expressing my pique.  But I have too many questions to settle first.  Is poetry truly dead as a subject of study?  Can we win it back from haters who seem increasingly unabashed in their rejection?  Can we persuade them to like it?  If so, how?

And, if not, what’s next?

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5 Comments

Filed under Art, Doubt, Essays, High School Teaching, Jeremiads, Laments, Opinion, Sturm und Drang, Teaching, Thoughts

5 responses to “Poetry Foes (And Woes)

  1. I am so very glad that you are making the effort. The particular word or phrase might represent hours or days of the poet’s work . . . and the historical context surrounding the work (which you probably don’t have time to provide) is so enlightening. But I’m preaching to the choir, amn’t I?

    I wonder if the nanosecond culture contributes to the difficulty. Poetry takes some pondering. People who sprint through their hours doubtless are disinclined to spend the ponder-time to let those images seep in.

    “I go around the room having each student select an image that struck him or her hard…”
    That seems as if it would work well. A single image striking hard might be all it would take to crack the door a bit.

    Apparently “fear of poetry” exists the same way “fear of math” does. There’s even a self-help website, http://www.changethatsrightnow.com/problem_detail.asp?SDID=4382:1684, which strikes me as a solution looking for a problem. But I’m not in your position, trying to focus young brains in a different way, so as to hear the poet’s voice.

    I forget sometimes that, as a teacher, I’m required to be positive, and I’m sorry I sounded so cranky in this post. I didn’t mean to give the impression my students are all a bunch of philistines or slackers. Quite the contrary, I teach some students who love–or learn to love–poetry. I meant to say the problem is partly mine, because I’m disproportionately bothered by the haters (who may not actually be haters at all in the end).

    You’re right that pace is often the issue. Some people just have more patience with challenges than others do, and poetry anxiety (like math anxiety, I suppose) seems to arise from a desire for the answer right now. Rescuing anxious students can be as challenging as rescuing someone drowning–they may pull you down. It helps a little to say we can relax because there is no complete answer, but that approach may be disingenuous. Like clothing, some readings of a poem do fit better than others. The only approach that seems to help in the end is experience, which is precisely what anxious readers would like to avoid.

    Still–I have to struggle to be positive!–reading poetry is a “useful skill.” You need considerably more mental flexibility and resourcefulness, and the students who learn to do it well are often the most creative and thoughtful I teach. I’m hesitant to tell anyone I’m working on skills useful outside what we’re doing (because that makes school medicine), but it’s true.

    Thanks, as always, for your thought-provoking comments.

  2. David, it seems nearly every comment I leave for you elicits your apology for sounding cranky or for possibly being too transparent.
    Stop it.
    You didn’t sound cranky; you sounded like somebody wrestling with how best to impart a skill and a pleasure.

    I do think, too, that appreciation for poetry is somewhat genetic. A love for words in all their permutations isn’t something that everybody has…

    I’m struggling to remain positive right now.

    My daughter and I talked about what’s required for a poet the other day. We decided that, while it isn’t purely genetic, some traits–like a memory for quirky words or a flexibility and resourcefulness with syntax are helpful. A different set of skills might contribute too, but I don’t think anyone will get government funding to find out.

  3. I didn’t think you sounded cranky. I thought you sounded, as you said, “disproportionately bothered by the haters.” I thought I hated poetry in high school until a friend took me to a Jim Carroll (The Basketball Diaries) reading. Hearing an author read his work aloud and getting pulled into what he was saying emotionally was electrifying. After that, I started re-reading the poets I had studied already, then discovering others such as Octavio Paz and e.e. cummings whose works were not part of the curriculum. Poetry is hard; so much meaning is packed into so few words.

    Maybe it’s the “voice” of poetry that bothers students. When was the time was right and you heard the poet say the words, you absorbed poetry more readily, and I see students have similar conversion experiences. The trick is finding the right poet and/or poem to demonstrate what poetry can be. I’m lucky that there are so many great poems to teach.

    As a teacher, I’m really sensitive about being positive enough. Nothing brings a class down more than the sense you don’t appreciate them, and colleagues who listen to you complain about a class can be condescending. “Well,” they say without saying, “have you considered that the problem is you?” For someone like me who has trouble seeing that glass half-full and is all too ready to identify himself as the problem, feeling guilty about being cranky is just part of the job. I’d hate to have anyone think I have an adversarial relationship with my students—they are great and are just being themselves.

  4. good to find a compatriot of micro poetry …

    • dmarshall58

      Thank you for alerting me to your site. I really enjoyed what I found there. It’s some consolation to discover that, whatever some of my students say about poetry, it persists as a deep compulsion for many talented writers. Poetry will always find a place, even if it can’t always go by that name. —D

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