A Pocketful of Prosody

American author Stephen Crane in 1899

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I love poetry, and as a high school English teacher, I would like my students to enjoy it as much as I do. While this may be an inherently futile endeavor, I continue to fight the good fight anyway and make pitches for my favorite poems and poets. If I’m lucky, the students who’ve learned to hate poetry may come to dislike like it perhaps a little bit less. At the very least, I try my best to repair the damage done by their former (albeit well-meaning) teachers who managed to drive the love of verse out of my students somewhere between kindergarten and junior high.

One thing my school did this year to promote the enjoyment of poetry was participate in “Poem In Your Pocket Day,” an exercise sponsored by Poets.org and The Academy of American Poets. The idea is simple. On Thursday, April 29, students are encouraged to keep copies of their favorite poems in their pockets to share with friends, teachers, co-workers, and family. Our school librarian even organized a prize drawing for students who showed their poems to their English teachers.

The results of the event were both interesting and encouraging. First of all, more than a quarter of my students carried poems with them to class—a much higher percentage than I anticipated. Some of the poems were classics, others were written by contemporary authors, a few were song lyrics (a valid form of poetic expression, in my opinion). The encouraging thing was that students seemed genuinely excited about sharing their poems with their classmates, and most insisted on reading the poems aloud so that the words could have maximum impact. Perhaps poetry as an art form is not dead after all.

By the way, the poem I carried in my pocket was one by Stephen Crane:

Poem 96

A man said to the universe:

“Sir, I exist!”

“However,” replied the universe,

“The fact has not created in me

A sense of obligation.”

I love that poem.

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Poetic Pain: Teaching Poetry to High Schoolers

Los angeles colegiales
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During the holidays, I met up with a longtime friend who, like me, teaches high school English. He told me that he was going to be teaching a semester-long poetry class at his school, and he asked if I had any suggestions. Here’s what I said:

Pick poems that you like. I you think a poem is good, chances are it will show in the way you teach it. Granted, there are times as an educator when you have to teach material you don’t personally enjoy, but it’s hard to fake enthusiasm for a poem you don’t like. If you like the poem, the kids will sense this, and if you’re lucky, they may find themselves enjoying it too.

Use songs to teach poetry. Music is a natural bridge between the students’ own experiences with poetic ideas and the more sophisticated forms of language you would like to introduce them to. I suggest picking some songs you personally enjoy. If you are old like me, the chances are pretty good that they’ve probably never heard the song, thus making it a fresh experience for them. You could also select songs you know they listen to, or better yet, have the students select a song and present it to the class as a poem.

Go from simple to complex. Or as C.S. Lewis phrased it, “The highest cannot stand without the lowest.” Start with engaging and accessible poems to get the students used to thinking about poetry from a variety of perspectives before moving on to more complex discussions of form and structure. Find poems that center on the notions of “life and living” rather than the more erudite topics most of us had to digest in school. Granted, a dense poem like Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” is a superb work of art, but unless you want to bleed the life out of your students, I wouldn’t begin there.

Use a variety of poems. Students will probably never like every poem they read (who does?), but the more poets and styles they encounter, the more likely they will find some material they connect with and enjoy.

Use imitation. Have the students create lots of different poems in several different forms. For example, if students are asked to create a parody of a famous poem, it forces them to know the features of the original very well. In the process, they will build their understanding of poetic forms and structure, and at the very least, they will come away with a much more thorough understanding of that work than they ever would have achieved by simply reading the poem.

As an English teacher, I would love it if my students enjoyed poetry as much as I do. The reality is that most don’t, and if we are honest, it is schools that are partially to blame for this. I know I can’t change every student’s attitude about poetry, but my hope is that by adopting some of the strategies listed above, perhaps I can help the kids who really hate poetry to hate it just a little bit less.

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