On flawed poetry curriculum in grade school: a delayed response to Howe’s “The Virtues of Verse”

While reading Fanny Howe’s “The Virtues of Verse,” I had a slight flashback to a class conversation we had weeks ago, on the difficulties that seem to be almost inherent when teaching poetry to children and teenagers.

One of the difficulties we talked about is the limited access most children have to a variety of poetry. Most of us recalled only really having been exposed to Shel Silverstein in our early elementary school days. Although I am now remembering the thin paperback collections of some of the “great” poets (Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Lewis Carroll, etc.) that my mom gifted me once, they didn’t immediately stick out in my head, and besides learning how to read the poems out loud in different ways, I don’t think that my young self knew all that much of how to make use of them.

This is the bud of one of the reasons why Howe’s essay excited me. Constructing her piece in a lineated, “poetic” form, she advocated a teaching method where the instructor would have children lineate any or all class writing pieces, similar to how her essay was. This way, they would be able to learn about the relations that can exist between sentences and single words by applying the care of line breakage to writings such as essays and other small, more typically prose-like exercises. The idea is beautiful, in that it aims to instill an appreciation for one of the most markedly “poetic” elements of poetry, without forcing children to read any poems against their own will. When these kids later encounter poetry in other settings, some of this care and thought would unavoidably remain somewhere in the back of their minds

The other overarching problem we talked a bit about in our class conversation was how the pieces of canonical poetry that are required to be taught in grade, middle, and high schools aren’t necessarily accessible or helpful to students. All too often, they seem to cause kids to rule out poetry writing as something that could ever be for them. These required “greats” are also entirely unrepresentative of what contemporary poetry—the living, growing part of poetry—looks like these days. Even if kids did feel inspired with some of the poetry prescribed in classes, they may still not be able to access or interact with the ongoing conversation. Howe’s idea could also help with this issue because of its focus on line breaks. I feel like without anything else to grab onto, I always focused on the language and diction of poems in high school, which kind of alienated me from the craft itself.

Even if teachers could somehow tilt or guide focus in poetry curriculum to a facet like line breakage, I feel like this could help to bring the youth into poetry in a more welcoming way.

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