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.

Writing Exercise: musical ekphrasis

This writing prompt is basically a riff on the ekphrasis poems we did in class already, but you’ll be drawing inspiration from a song or musical piece rather than visual artwork. I have come up with a few fragments of poems this way, but have been meaning to officially try this out for a while now.

So you could run with it in a couple of ways, but here are some loose guidelines/suggestions:

  1. Choose a song that has impacted you in some way, either recently or at some point in your past. This could be from any genre, just whatever moves you personally! I have often found myself most inspired to write when listening to pieces that are more instrumental than vocally-based, but depending on the day/my mood/etc this can vary significantly. Just take a minute to think about what feels right for you.
  2. Find a quiet place (could be the library, your room, or another favorite spot), pop in some headphones, and just let your song soak in. You may need to play through it a few times for full effect.
  3. Once you feel situated with your song, pay close attention to what it brings to mind. What type of emotional response does it illicit? Does it call up any distant memories or nostalgia? Are there any specific colors, textures, or other sensory attributes that seem to embody the piece for you? Have a blank page in front of you so you can just jot down whatever thoughts or ideas you may have.
  4. If the piece you choose does happen do have lyrics, you may also consider picking out a word or phrase and incorporating it into your poem.


Communication Through Imagery

The question of how to portray images as they appear originally in the author’s mind is a constant point of consideration and discussion in poetry writing and in the work-shopping process. Is it possible though, that poetry and other forms of creative writing provide what may actually be our best shot at reaching others with what we are thinking?

In the major authors course I am taking right now on Virginia Woolf and D.H. Lawrence, we are currently reading the writing of Woolf, and some of her ideas relate directly to this concept. I felt inspired to think further into this, and I believe that at least in part Woolf may be trying to argue for this point through her work—that writing may indeed be the closest anyone can come to truly expressing their inner life and connecting to others. One of the themes that tends to permeate Woolf’s works is the issue of basically how anyone can ever hope to glean anything close to the correct picture of what others are thinking or feeling. And this is an incredibly fair point; two people may look at the same scene at a park for example, or even the same leaf, and have completely separate memories or ideas come to mind. Her question seems to be: how can one ever hope to understand another person when the internal mental realms in which we live are so vastly different? When you become close to someone you can develop a type of intuition into how they think, but it can never be a complete view. Verbal communication also falls short, and so that leaves us with written expression.

I’d like to agree with the view that this is our best chance at connection. True, it can be difficult to put something down on paper in a way that is translatable from your mind to a reader’s interpretation, but I think it is a challenge for a reason and very worth it. If correctly harnessed, the ability to write can be a boundlessly powerful tool, connecting people from all backgrounds and with all levels of familiarity. The only prerequisite for this type of communication is the desire to understand.

The Fine Line Between Influence and Absorption

Although he had a lot of good points to share, one particular passage from Ezra Pound’s essay especially stuck out to me, and that was in relation to drawing influence from other artists. “Be influenced by as many great artists as you can, but have the decency either to acknowledge the debt outright, or to try to conceal it.”

This resonated with me as I have often noticed this problem in my own work, and it has been a constant concern for my future pieces as well. It can be difficult to pick out an overly-saturated chunk of influence in your own writing, especially if you have at the same time been immersed in the work of whomever that influence may stem from. In a sense it can be a challenge—at least for me—to completely take in the words of another artist without being too sponge-like in doing so, and thereby allowing shards of their genius to put on capes and parade as your own. It turns into an unnecessary extra step in editing my work when this problem does pop up. I’ll read through a poem I wrote a month back, and go ‘damn it, there’s way too much Bukowski [insert other artists’ names] in here,” and then have to go back and extract or change up my words enough that the accidental theft of style isn’t so prominent.

In any case, this statement by Pound did well to call up this concern of mine again. I will definitely be holding on to this thought as I move forward with my writing, both this semester and generally.