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?