A Fear of Poetry

What is it that makes poetry such an enigma for students? Recently, one of my classes discussed our fears of poetry. Many of us remarked that in high school, there were seemingly two approaches to poetry: the first is to view it as something we all can create and there is no such thing as “good” or “bad” because it is subjective, and the second is to view each poem as a riddle that we must analyze in order to decode the writer’s intent. Both of these aren’t very helpful perspectives in fostering self-confidence in our abilities as readers. I remember having instructors in both of these categories. And neither made me feel any better about my writing.
A high school poetry class offered a space for supporting each other’s work, and also an easy elective for the seniors who wanted to glide through their final semesters. Unfortunately, I never walked away from one of my workshops with much to propel me forward. After so many years stifling creativity for the sake of testing form, students were afraid to give critiques. You either got a questionable amount of half-hearted compliments or murdered-cricket silence. You didn’t feel challenged –thus, I suspect that the quality of my poetry did not improve.
Meanwhile, most of the typical high school English classes that I experienced followed the second approach. We’d sit down with a poem, usually a very well-known one, and pick it apart line-by-line until students started coming up with “imaginative” answers to the question “What does it all mean?” Sometimes, we would focus on one line so much that, in their interpretations, students would disregard the rest of the poem. But these interpretations, unless they got lucky, only made sense in the context of that one line. Often, I would just refrain from participating because I didn’t want to stop liking the poetry we read.
To make matters worse, after reading poems using this second approach, it appears to be a common mindset of students that they have to write a poem that’s as well-crafted as the most famous poets and contain some earth-shattering, riddle-like hidden meaning. I won’t say that I didn’t succumb to this fear at one point. I mean, it’s no wonder so many people experience a fear of poetry! Certainly, this calls for an alteration in the teaching methods of poetry in schools; reading poetry should not breed fear, but provoke the desire to read more of it and to write.

2 Replies to “A Fear of Poetry”

  1. Rachel,
    I’m sorry you had to be taught that way. I didn’t write any poetry in high school because we didn’t spend any time on actual writing. I’ve thought about this many times, the way poetry should be taught in high school and how current curriculum is itself afraid of poetry, fostering student fear. I think that the exercises you did in high school were just implemented poorly if that was the end result. I think that a teacher should act as a gentle guide in poetry classes. I’m sorry that your workshop was so polarized.

    In replying I’ve been wondering what would really have made my classmates love poetry. I’m remembering a few guys rubbing foreheads and groaning reading Emily Dickinson. I think that I always circle back to trust when it comes to teaching anything. Trusting that a student will come to a conclusion that will help her learn, which is the whole point, can keep her from creating a fear of authenticity in both her writing and critique. I also think that creating a flexible definition of poetry at the get go is important. I think I’ve already said this today, but I really do believe that viewing writing as possibility really helped me in my own writing and reading. This also keeps workshops from being negative and fosters a creative environment.

  2. Rachel,
    I definitely understand where you’re coming from! As a high school student, I really hated poetry, mostly because I wasn’t being introduced to the kinds of poets that I wanted to see. I remember reading Whitman over and over again until my brain hurt, and picking apart Robert Frost under the supervision of a put-upon teacher. I never really saw that poetry could be honest, brutally so, or that it could describe something other than a trip down a country road or some sad old object (sorry, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”). I could never relate to the poetry we were reading, and I think that’s often the biggest obstacle in getting kids to love poetry. Hell, I went into the creative writing major thinking I would be a fiction writer, and I just happened into a poetry workshop and really ended up loving it.

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