Resurrecting Poetry

Robert Bly at the Minnesota Poetry Out Loud finals. Photo by Nic McPhee. Used under creative commons license.

Sunday’s Washington Post Magazine  cover, titled “Rhyme and Reason” was an attempt to answer a question that I’m sure has been asked a multitude of times in the last few decades: Is poetry dead (“Is poetry dead? Or in the age of the Internet, does it offer us what nothing else can?”)?

The answer, almost immediately, is no. The story starts with a description of a reading and meet-and-greet given by W.S. Merwin at the Library of Congress and goes on to spend a decent amount of time showcasing an after-school creative writing workshop at Hart Middle School in Anacostia. What I find amazing about the piece is not just that middle (and then high school students) in what’s one of the worst areas of Washington, D.C. are actively seeking out a writing workshop where they create poetry, but this paragraph:

The program’s approach to creative writing is surprisingly traditional. It teaches poetry the way poetry has been taught for nearly a century, the way it is taught in MFA workshops across the country: by studying a poem and then writing one. The program’s teachers are published writers who either have or are working on degrees in creative writing. The best of the student work is published in the school’s literary journal, hArtworks.

 

Now it’s not that the “surprisingly traditional” approach gets me fired up because I tend to be a skeptic when it comes to brand new bells and whistles in the classroom, but because I have always loved the idea of getting one’s hands dirty when it comes to writing. Maybe it’s just because that’s how I learned how to write–scribbling in a notebook until I felt it was good enough to type up–or because having a poem in one hand and pen and paper in the other and digging deep for a good poem is one of the hardest things you can do. Trust me, I majored in writing in college and when I had to declare my concentration I chose fiction partly because I had discovered, after two semesters of poetry, that I was pretty bad at writing poetry. But that was college and this is middle and high school where these students are finding their voices and consequently discovering the voices of others.

So the idea that you might, at 16 years old, write crappy poetry isn’t that big of a deal. Besides, getting students interested in the idea of poetry in the first place is a step in the right direction. Because let’s face it: we ask if poetry is dead because it if it isn’t dead in English class, it’s dying a slow, painful death and has been for a very long time. I remember when I first realized poetry was great. It was elementary school, when I read A Light in the Attic and Where the Sidewalk Ends. But while I did go on to read the poems of Robert Frost, Walt Whitman, and Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven”, I can’t remember anything else beyond epic poetry such as Beowulf and The Canterbury Tales until I took creative writing my senior year of high school. And even then, I wasn’t reading anything that was too monumentally great and didn’t really get into some of the heavy-duty poets (both Dead White Males and non-Dead White Males) until I hit college.

Poetry isn’t a high priority when it comes to high school English. It’s rarely on standardized tests and while it is sprinkled throughout your average Prentice-Hall/McGraw-Hill/McDougall-Little/Hyphen-Hyphenated textbook I am going to be the first to admit that I’m not really sure how much reading, analyzing, or writing poetry is actually taught. After all, it’s kind of tough. When reading poetry, you have to find poems that grab students’ attention and that at first aren’t too challenging. Then, you have to keep everyone going while you break it down. It winds up being kind of a risk. And writing? Uh … I got some great stuff out of an advanced English class earlier this year but to be honest, the only advice I gave was that it didn’t have to rhyme and they didn’t have to worry if it was bad. I do want to explore more poetry with my students and I can say that there are a few things I have done that have worked so far.

First, I do take the time to try to tie poetry into whatever novel or play we may be reading. While teaching All Quiet on the Western Front for instance, I’ve trotted out everything from the obligatory “In Flanders Fields” to the poetry of Edgar Guest, Wilfred Owen (“The Last Laugh” is a personal favorite of mine), and even George Bilgere’s “At the Vietnam Memorial.” I’ve done sonnets by Shakespeare, odes by Poe … whatever might work well. Additionally, my classes have participated in Poetry Out Loud, the National Poetry Foundation’s annual recitation contest. The purpose of that contest is the discovery and memorization of a poem. They choose whatever they would like from a large database of poetry and then present it to the class, with the best presenter in the school going to regional, state, and perhaps national competition. I love the competition just because their poetry database is a wonderful resource but I also like how it allows my students to dive into poetry and find out what they like. But I’d like to do more, of course. The dream, I guess, is to get them to seek it out and even write it on their own and bring it in to share or workshop. I intend to do more creative-minded activities in the last couple of months of this year so I will see what I can do and what works.

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