Poetry in the Classroom: As Students & As Poets?

My German professor decided to start our literature class off with a whimper, not a bang this semester. By this I mean we opened with poems. In German. I’ve noticed that in many of my [English] literature classes, when discussing poetry, the room goes silent. The professor skims the room, looking for volunteers, and everyone studies their text with increased fervor, praying they won’t get called on. So imagine that scenario, but add the fun of a foreign language to it. You could almost see the shoulders rise in defensiveness. Predictably, a friend who knows me kicked me under the table and hissed, “You write poetry, say something.” Heads turned my direction. And for the rest of the class period, I was the Poet [designated class speaker] who suddenly had authority and was expected to provide interpretations for the poems we read. This got me thinking about why students often hate poetry units in creative writing and are stymied by poetry in literature classes when discussing Dickinson, Wordsworth, Whitman, etc.

Perhaps it is because our poetic ancestors are precisely that: ancestors. Older. From a different time. Reading Shakespeare is quite different from sitting down and reading a work of contemporary poetry. References that audiences in the 19th century might have understood escape us. The cultural values and literary movements that informed our ancestors’ poetry are different than today’s. I remember groaning about one having to read one more Romantic poem in Brit Lit (“If I see one more pastoral scene, I swear to God…” I think part of the problem is the accessibility factor. Because we don’t identify to the poetry taught in literature classes (no matter how important reading our ancestors is), we tune it out. We say we don’t (and can’t) understand it. As poet Andrea Springer (class of ’14) mentions in an interview done with Gandy Dancer: ” there’s still this pervasive belief that poetry is this secret code and without the exact key you won’t be able to decipher it to arrive at any kind of meaningful reading. Teaching poetry is important to me because I want to tell as many people as I can that poets aren’t trying to trick us” (interview found here).

I’ve been on the student side of it, as I’m sure we all have. However, as a poet who also gets to work with fabulous contemporary poets in the classroom, who is required to read modern collections for class, and who is actively engaged in our own small poetry community here in Geneseo, I wish every student was required to pick up a collection of poetry published in the last five years. The issues and thoughts that take up much of our collective consciousness today are reflected in today’s poetry: there are feminism poems, sex poems, poems that deal with homosexuality and bullying, poems that are pushing form and language and poems that thrill with being alive today. I wonder if students would still feel as alienated from poetry (which to the average person seems to evoke images grim-faced black & white portraits, counting syllables, being forced to memorize lines, etc.) if they read a modern collection like Anna Journey’s If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting. (Interestingly enough: two of my peers mentioned that while they hated reading poetry in high school, they loved Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seuss, which may be two of the more modern poets mentioned in high school.)

Why do you think students tend to shy away from poetry? How can we break out of our small poet nucleus to share with the larger world? What are things done in classrooms (both in secondary schooling and college) that could change the attitude toward poetry? Is making poetry “accessible” something positive that contemporary poets should strive for?


2 Replies to “Poetry in the Classroom: As Students & As Poets?”

  1. Fascinating anecdote; I feel like translation adds a live wire to the poetry-in-a-foreign-language scenario, but what’s so interesting about your post and its questions is the way we (as Western societies, if that’s not too huge a term) treat poetry as a foreign language.

    There have been lots of debates about that term “accessible” on various poets blogs; John Gallaher was a wise voice on it. Put reductively, even the most elusive poem might be said to be accessible, since we share language, though the opposite camp has been arguing since at least Modernism that it’s the over-intellectual strain of poetry that produces the response you document.

    Great post for us to mull! What do others think?

  2. You raise an important point. I feel as though the “outside world” is deprived of good poetry. Yet, in order to appreciate a good poem, you’ve got to be literate, and if you’re literate, you’ve got to be a good reader. It’s not as accessible as an art like music, because with music, all we have to do is sit back and listen. Or dance. If only they taught Anna Journey & friends my senior year, there would be a lot more people I know listening and dancing with collections of poetry books in their hands. 🙂

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