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.
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.”