In all things I do, I’m and educator. It’s impossible for me to do anything without bringing education into it, so while I thought about what I could write this week, education came to my mind as it often does. I can (and probably will) write so many posts on poetry and education, but this week I want to air out a grievance I’ve had since student teaching last semester.
Being the “cool English teacher” that I am, I assigned poetry as a final project for my 10th graders who had just finished The House on Mango Street. I tasked them with taking one vignette from the novel and creating a found poem in the shape of an important symbol from the novel. I thought this was a pretty awesome final project. It was certainly one I would have loved to do in high school. However, my students hated it! My rowdy class actually started yelling at me when I assigned this. I want to know why so many students (and people in general) hate poetry.
I think that it has a lot to do with teachers. English teachers either don’t teach poetry or they teach it in such a way that makes students resent it. So many English teachers refuse to introduce new poetry into the classroom. I truly believe that if it weren’t for teachers beating “The Road Not Taken” to death and then not touching any other poetry, students might enjoy poetry more. That’s not to say Robert Frost isn’t great, I just don’t think he’s the best introduction to poetry. First of all, students like to see themselves represented, and teacher’s who only teach white, male poets are doing a disservice to their students. I remember having to research a poet in tenth grade. I had to pick from a long list of white, male poets who were all long dead. There were only three women on that list, Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton, and there was only one poet of color, Langston Hughes. I picked Sexton purely because she was a woman I had never heard of. So many students were not able to see themselves in the poets on that list. Nevertheless, that list is the standard for English teachers if they want to teach poetry at all.
Schools and teachers need to be more open to teaching modern poetry. I hate to hear “but that won’t be on the Regents.” Not everything students need to learn will be on the Regents! Teachers should include more modern and diverse poets (this is not to say we shouldn’t still teach Robert Frost, there just needs to be a better mix of poets) when teaching poetry. That way more students might even enjoy their poetry assignments. This is a side note, but teaching creative writing is a whole separate post.
There is a happy ending to my students who hated their assignment at first. They ended up writing some fantastic poetry! A lot of the students actually liked the assignment way more than they thought they would. In fact, the student who protested the assignment the most, wrote one of the best poems, and enjoyed the assignment the most. He actually gave me an extra copy of his poem because he wanted me to be able to read it and “remember my favorite student” as he put it. If anyone wants to read it, I still have it!
A surprise to no one, my introduction to poetry was music. My eighth grade English teacher was the first teacher I had who taught poetry in his class. He explained poetry to us as music. Mr Mo was awesome, and he let us listen to our iPods while we wrote poetry because he said the music would inspire us. I was so happy to be allowed to have my iPod in class, that I took these poetry assignments seriously. This introduction to poetry made me have a huge focus on sound in my poems. I am admittedly nervous for the class to read my poem out loud because it won’t sound like it does in my head. That’s a good thing, it’ll let me learn how it sounds to other people at least.
Because I took the poetry assignments seriously, Mr Mo decided to invite me to perform in the high school poetry slam. That was a huge deal to me as a lowly eighth grader. I didn’t win, but I got to hang out with a bunch of high school poets. Basically I thought I was the coolest kid alive. I threw myself into poetry after that. I was a Button Poetry and Brave New Voices addict. It wasn’t until tenth grade that I really encountered classic poetry and forms other than free-verse and slam poetry.
I stopped writing poetry almost entirely when I got to college. Nearly four years later, I’m in two poetry writing classes. I’ve learned that my introduction to poetry back in middle school has definitely stuck with me. I still write all my poems while listening to music. I also tend to read my poem out loud as I write it to see how each syllable and phoneme sounds exactly how I want it to. The difference between now and then is that I am slowly starting to care about how the poem looks on the page. The first poem I submitted for workshop has the beginning of every line capitalized and little to no punctuation. That wasn’t on purpose. It didn’t occur to me to care about how it looks. The look of a poem is something that doesn’t matter in slam poetry. I never thought that anyone would read my poems. In the past, people have only ever heard me read my own poems in slams. It’s interesting to think back to eighth grade with Mr Mo, my beat up composition notebook, and my iPod Shuffle. It makes me feel really nostalgic.
The biggest complaint my past roommates have had about me is that I listen to music from the moment I open my eyes in the morning to the second I close them at night. For me, music is inseparable from my emotions and memories. I turn to music when I’m writing because music is my scrapbook. My memories and feelings are documented in the music I was listening to when I felt a certain way or something important happened. Because I listen to so much music, it’s difficult to name specific songs that have resulted in poems without going far beyond 300 words. However, I will name a couple that contributed to the last poem I wrote. That poem, “Museum,” was inspired by nostalgia, so these songs are all ones I listened to when I was younger. “Up Up and Away” by Romance on a Rocketship, “The Pursuit of Happiness” by Kid CuDi, “Say My Name” by ODESZA and Zyra, “Hello, Brooklyn” by All Time Low, “Fall for You” by Secondhand Serenade, and “I Miss You” by Blink-182 are a few of the songs that make me feel the emotion I’m trying to convey in “Museum.” Music doesn’t just inspire the content of my poems either. I care more about the sound of my poems than their appearance. The sound my poetry makes is also inspired by music. Recently I’ve been interested in awkward cadences. Two songs that show this are “Daphne Blue” by The Band CAMINO and “Nicknames” by Dayglow. These songs create tension in the way that singer pauses in the middle of sentences, and that tension is resolved in the chorus. This particular sound is something I’d like to explore in poetry.