Prescribing Poetry

Another reprise…

deadpoetsalt.jpg Teaching poetry should be easy and is perhaps the hardest teaching I do.

I don’t blame poetry—from my perspective, what could be more alluring to students than reading assignments that are crazily creative, organically mysterious, and nearly always short? Yet anyone who has seen Dead Poets Society knows teachers are not playing on a level playing field. Few students are neutral about poetry.

If you’ve seen the movie, you probably remember the episode I’m talking about. Mr. Keating (Robin Williams) asks a student to read the introduction to a poetry anthology in which J. Evans Pritchard encourages readers to plot the technical expertise of poetry against its importance, yielding an area equal to the poem’s “greatness.” Then Keating calls the method “excrement” and encourages the class to rip the pages out of their books.

Keating’s conclusion:

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…This is a battle, a war, and the causalities could be your hearts and souls. Armies of academics going forward measuring poetry—no, we’ll not have that here! No more J. Evans Pritchard!

While this iconoclastic moment makes good cinema and though Mr. Keating’s clarion call seems to reclaim poetry from dusty libraries, his perspective actually makes my job tougher. It isn’t just the crazy notion that, if you have teens in trouble, the best solution is to prescribe poetry…though I am sick of that cliché. It’s that, by elevating poetry’s importance, Keating puts poetry on a pedestal many students love to topple. And in rejecting Pritchard—execrable as his introduction makes him seem—Keating calls into question all analysis of poetry, which makes teaching poetry blasphemy. The combination is devastating.

It’s occurred to me maybe teaching poetry is impossible, maybe we are not supposed to analyze poetry and, as my students often tell me, maybe poems mean whatever you think they mean and thus any collective attention to them is a waste of time. Maybe it’s true we “murder to dissect.” Many days, I’ve been perfectly willing to give up.

However, I’ve stuffed my files with failed lessons I return to over and over hoping this time they work. I can’t give up. Teaching poetry brings out the quixotic in me. What could be the harm in helping students read more thoughtfully and carefully? In the movie The History Boys, the teacher Hector (Richard Griffith) describes literature as reaching out of the page and taking your hand. If you can make that happen one time for each student each year, isn’t it worth the risk?

In Billy Collins’ introduction to 180, an anthology of easily accessible and clever poems, he says “High School is where poetry goes to die,” and tells the story of a student who writes in the school paper, “Whenever I read a modern poem, it’s like my brother has his foot on the back of my neck in the swimming pool.”

I understand the metaphor—many students see poetry—being lofty—as something someone is supposed to “get,” revelatory and rapturous. The clouds are supposed to drift asunder. A ray of heavenly light is supposed to illuminate, laser like, one square of significant something. Not getting that epiphany makes them feel stupid, as if they’ve missed something the rest of the world has seen.

And here’s the catch 22. Trying to help them see what they might be missing is fraught with trouble too because, well, poetry isn’t meant to be analyzed.

Where’s a teacher to stand?

Good education is serious play, a willing struggle to understand, an attempt to move a heavy object without handles from here to there. It’s another try at a seemingly inaccessible but possible goal or a ballet that might just come off perfectly this time around. Certainly, learning is important, but it should also be fun. And, unfortunately, students don’t always associate “fun” with poetry.

Collins sees poetry as fun. He starts 180 with his own poem, “Introduction to Poetry,” and employs a series of metaphors representing what he’d like students to do with poetry, namely drop a mouse into the poem-maze and watch it run, hold it up to sun like a color slide, feel along its walls for a light switch, or waterski across it waving at the author. Still, all his students 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.

To me, Collins’ poem looks like an indictment of students who have trouble balancing appreciation and analysis, who have trouble simply playing and expect more of an answer than poems can (or should) present. Yet, even exploring the metaphors of this poem sometimes sets students’ eyes rolling. For some, even asking what Collins means by the metaphors is murder enough.

So teaching poetry often becomes an exercise in un-brainwashing:

No, poetry isn’t special, except that it is a form of writing with distinctive and interesting conventions and challenges.

No, we aren’t looking for specific answers in poems as if each were a life or death riddle.

No, you aren’t stupid if the poem doesn’t resonate with you. Maybe the next one will.

No, it is possible to read a poem closely and attentively and still appreciate it (and maybe even enjoy it).

No, poetry isn’t always boring, arcane, or snooty.

No, I won’t give up or leave you alone if you play nice during this “poetry unit.”


Filed under Art, Education, Essays, High School Teaching, Laments, Poetry, Teaching, Thoughts, Work

3 responses to “Prescribing Poetry

  1. I think poetry seems so dangerous to like because it’s not taking you anywhere in particular-there is no promise of a beginning middle and end. There is no set pace of this happens, then this , then here is that guy who does this other thing. Its ambiguous. Its open. It’s filled with adjectives and metaphor and you can apply meaning how ever you want. It’s like abstract or just nonrepresentational art. You have to look at it, think about it because it doesn’t just lay there naked. Not all poetry is good. I think that is also the problem. Just the word POEM elevates the thing to some other level and if you don’t get it-maybe there is something wrong with you. Poetry is weird and asks a lot of the reader sometimes. It’s easier to understand when you have read a good one to accept the moderately okay and even the bad ones.

    The elevation of poetry doesn’t help me teach it. As you say, students believe they are looking at something that is supposed to be prophetic or deep, and their expectations interfere with absorption. I tell them to relax, to let their uncertainty alone for a few minutes, but they are anxious to get some answers. They might have more fun if they regarded poems more like something they found in salvage yard, a part to a larger machine or a mechanism with a time-lost purpose. Then reading and speculation could coexist more peacefully.

    It’s great to hear from you. Thanks for visiting. –D

  2. Peter Newton


    If you don’t mind, may I riff off your post about poetry. Just thinking aloud, one poet to another. . . I am not a teacher of high school students (yet) though many friends are. But if I were, I’d read some poems to my students. Ask nothing of them but a few moments of listening. No comments, no questions. And move on to the next thing. Whatever it is. I’d try to be consistent–say Fridays are 5-minutes of poetry day. In this way, the spoken words, old, new, modern, classical become demystified. Familiar, even.

    A section on Poetry where the teacher is required to cover Poem X,Y and Z by year’s end is not the best approach, I’d suggest to my superiors. Poetry is part-of, not separate. There’s so much poetry in Shakespeare’s plays, in certain films, even today. Poetry is not the alien other but something kids may learn to re-recognize, if that makes sense.

    Poetry is not something I would ask my students to “get.” That sets up some expectation of an inside joke–get the symbolism? get the metaphor? It makes poetry a villain.

    How about approaching poetry as the music that it is. Something to give yourself. Permission to listen. No thinking, please. I’d ask them to memorize one poem or a piece of a poem. Their choice. Take your time. And no public pronouncements. Even a written version would do. There are lines of e.e.cummings that have kept me company for 30 years or more. Even lines I have forgotten who wrote them: “By all means spend some time alone. See what thy soul doth wear.” George Herbert maybe? Doesn’t matter. Advice to live by, I’d say.

    There are as many poetic voices out there as there are radio stations. Keep scanning ’til you hear something you like. But no pressure. Poetry is something that is everywhere. Think of tv jingles as bad poetry. But the impulse to capture your attention is the same. Music, maybe rhyme? Fun, whimsy. . . “Bounty. ..the quicker picker upper…”

    Poetry is not lofty. At its heart, a good poem touches the reader because it is familiar. The only analysis of a poem needed–do you believe it? Will it hold up to repeated readings? Is it a truth?

    Thanks for the opportunity to think about these things. A snowy day here has delayed my morning for a reason, I guess. –Peter

    Mind your commenting? Never.

    I like the approach you propose, and, in the best of all possible worlds, I’d have no trouble adopting it entirely. The only complication I’d add to your meditations is my responsibility to teach close reading. I hope that after their time with me that students would be able to read better and–I know this might be dreaming–to experience reading as a richer and more vivid experience. I want them to see the reading world in more subtle shades and distinctive colors. I want them to make images from the static some of them see when they read anything, not just poetry. I have this quixotic idea that becoming more observant will enrich their lives and be my greatest gift to them. They have ample experience with media, but much of it seems to wash over like today’s tide.

    I don’t want to dissect and murder the poetry I teach but to appreciate it more fully. Some of my students want to be writers, and I’d love to validate their own attention to the right word, right phrasing, right ordering. As grateful as I am for inspiration, too many of my students regard inspiration, and not work, as writing’s key element.

    Maybe poetry is the wrong instrument to teach reading closely, which to me–here’s my bias–is simply reading well. Maybe the mystification of poetry means it has to be rehabilitated, just experienced and enjoyed before we can really look at again. And I can teach close reading with novels, short stories, and essays. Maybe poetry is different, meant to be experienced. Maybe my insistence on reading closely is a lame attempt to validate my own learning. Maybe it’s just hard for me to put my own training aside and let it alone. I can see all that, but some part of me resists.

    I like to look closely. I like analysis. That’s my trouble.

    Thanks, as always, for your thoughts. –David

    • Peter Newton

      I would just add that poetry is DOA to most high school-aged kids. Of course, you see the rolling of the eyes at the mere mention of the “P” word. Again, not being a teacher, my allegiance is to the mission of resuscitating poetry to the average joe. Students of all ages. The mandate to teach “close reading” is a good one. Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories are good for that. Hemingway in general says so little and yet on second glance is saying quite a lot with what he leaves out –perhaps someday one student, intrigued by what can happen with silence, will make the leap to poetry. It all stems from a love of language, as you know, being a poet yourself.

      At this point in our school systems / society I think it’s asking an awful lot of the Poem to do the work of a Story. Close reading comes from caring what happens next. Most poems don’t have an obvious “plot”. Unconventional as my hypothetical lesson plan for the teaching of poetry is, I think it’s an essential first step in bringing poetry back to life in America’s classrooms.

      (easy for me to say, I’m on the sidelines, scribbling my days away with lyrics from my life)

      I’m just glad you teach poems at all. I have teacher friends who just don’t want to fight with their kids about poetry so barely touch it all year. Just read a couple out loud, I tell them. You come in an do it, they say. Okay I will. Let me be the heavy. But again, the pressures from above do not allow a lot of coloring outside the lines. Unless you’re lucky to have unconventional administrators.

      Again, thanks for your posts. And this chance to advocate for the lowly
      p o e m.

      I should have said the first time that I did have a year of experimentation when I had my sophomore class read one poem aloud each day from Billy Collins’ 180. And, yes, it had the effect you describe. I started the year saying we would not discuss the poems, just read them, and, by December, a couple of students were asking to discuss the day’s poem. By the end of the year, however, I wanted the time back because I thought I might have accomplished more in class.

      Poetry is magical, and the effect of good poem (whatever that is) doesn’t rest finally on content. My students can sense that, and you remind me that I shouldn’t have given up my experiment so easily.

      Thanks, David

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