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Making Room for Poetry

By John S. O'Connor

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In the past year I’ve talked about poetry with a few hundred classroom teachers and heard one overwhelmingly common complaint.  Given the demands of required texts and standardized tests, there just isn’t enough time for poetry.

One teacher drew the analogy of designing a curriculum and furnishing a house: “You start with the big pieces — the sofa, the coffee table,” she told me, “not with the accent pieces.” Novels and plays are the serious works, she suggested — actual books that serve a vital function, substantial texts that might really require some heavy lifting. Poetry, by implication, is regarded as wall art, something exotic rather than essential — not something to plan a room (or a unit) around.

Perhaps this is why so many teachers told me that, while they thought poetry was important, they saved their poetry units for April and National Poetry Month. (And, as the literary magazine at every school where I’ve taught, I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve gone trolling for submissions only to have colleagues say, “I don’t have anything now, but I’ll have some creative pieces in April.”)  This, too, carries the clear implication that poetry is an after-thought.

When and where poetry is taught is an expression of our values. If poetry is truly something we value, it should be kept in the foreground.  For my part, I start every school year with a simple poetry writing exercise that the ReadWriteThink website called The ABC’s of Poetry. Tom Romano, an Education professor in Ohio, tells me he starts every class he teaches with a poem. Foregrounding poetry not only asserts the value of poetry, it also keeps us alert to the ways in which poetry can enrich our daily classes and our daily lives.

Comments (13)

  • On October 8, 2009 at 9:52 pm Paul Belbusti wrote:

    there isn’t enough time to not read poetry.

  • On October 9, 2009 at 1:57 am Duncan wrote:

    There are some things a teacher has to believe are important beyond the demands of the curriculum. I tell my students I’m a poet disguised as a high school teacher, and we take things from there.

  • On October 9, 2009 at 2:46 am Riva Nathans wrote:

    Sometimes, a school English department manages to do poetry justice.

    I was fortunate to go to a high school that devoted a trimester of freshman year (taught by someone who did not shy from wading through Wallace Stevens with kids just out of middle school), the majority of the sophomore year English literature survey, and a trimester of the AP sequence to poetry, offered focused elective courses like “Ted and Sylvia,” and occasionally brought professional poets to give workshops.

    Of course we found time to read Shakespeare, Sophocles, Hemingway, Faulkner, Austen, Dostoevsky, Beckett, etc. But the lines that still kick around in my head from then are “Let us go then, you and I, / When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherised upon a table” (that one is also still chalked somewhere on the inner wall of the clock tower…); “A car radio bleats, / ‘Love, O careless Love . . .’ I hear / my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell”; “Next, confession – the dreary part. / At night deer drift from the dark woods and eat my garden. / They’re like enormous rats on stilts except, of course, / they’re beautiful. But why? What makes them beautiful?”; “Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon, / The maker’s rage to order words of the sea, / Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred, / And of ourselves and of our origins, / In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.”; “And if these things, as being thine by right, / Move not thy heavy grace”; “And any chair / that’s empty here, / that’s someone / who is dying: / Find him.”

    I remember an injunction, in a workshop (Martin Lammon’s, I think), to dig for meaty Germanic diction, and the concept of “syntactic gaps,” the space between two adjacently stated ideas without an explicit transition: a pun on “synaptic gaps,” the space between neurons that signals have to leap.

    And I remember when a group of us who spent our free periods in a certain hallway were temporarily kicked out for leaving it messy. People protested by taping up a copy of “The Death of the Hired Man” with highlighter on “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, / They have to take you in. / I should have called it / Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.”

  • On October 9, 2009 at 10:18 am Marty Elwell wrote:

    I was looking through books on the shelf for English 101 through 600 Level English classes at Purdue this week. I was surprised to see how little poetry was required. There were plenty of texts, that I know from my own college experience, that could have been skipped in favor of good poetry. It’s not just high school.

  • On October 9, 2009 at 10:21 am Jim Murdoch wrote:

    I think a part of the problem too is that many teachers were not taught poetry well themselves and so they struggle to impart what they have only a tenuous grasp on themselves. I was educated in Scotland in the sixties and seventies but I always felt that my teachers had a very by-the-numbers approach to poetry. What I learned proved a bedrock and I’m grateful for it but then I was receptive and desperate to learn no matter how lacklustre the teacher’s performance. That was not true for the majority of my classmates who derided the subject. And I wonder if any of them went on to teach English?

  • On October 9, 2009 at 11:46 am John Oliver Simon wrote:

    And those of us who have made a precarious career out of teaching poetry in the schools (in my case since 1971), now find, as the schools don’t even know how much money they don’t have with draconian cuts imposed by recession funding, that writers in elementary, middle and high school classes are the first to go. Seventh-grader Uriel Bravo writes:

    An undiscovered world,
    a locked chest full of rage,
    empty thoughts,
    an animal in a cage,
    time rushing,
    black, impenetrable fog,
    a raft on a river,
    paying no attention to my steps,
    a silent mask,
    all these in a melting pot —
    my life.

  • On October 9, 2009 at 2:04 pm Glen wrote:

    The solution to the Poetry Problem at my high school was to use poems with esoteric vocabulary to help with SAT prep. So there was very little enjoyment there, though I did learn what concupiscence means (thanks, Wallace Stevens!).

  • On October 9, 2009 at 4:41 pm Ian wrote:

    I think school ruins poetry for many people. What my teachers knew about poetry could be written on the back of a postage stamp.

  • On October 9, 2009 at 11:41 pm Riva Nathans wrote:

    @Glen: Yes! Let be be finale of seem / The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

  • On October 10, 2009 at 12:23 pm Terreson wrote:

    My hat is off to all teachers, high school teachers maybe the most, who manage to do that increasingly subversive thing of inciting in their students a passionate appreciation of poetry.

    Terreson

    • On October 10, 2009 at 1:17 pm Ian wrote:

      One bad teacher can wreck many people. I’ve seen it.

  • On October 10, 2009 at 1:26 pm Ian wrote:

    Oops, sorry, I clicked the wrong reply button. My above post was in response to the article (not Terreson).

  • On October 12, 2009 at 2:04 pm sassjemleon wrote:

    within the last few years, my children have taken standardized tests in new jersey. there have been sections on these njask tests which require reading and responding to poetry in an intelligent and thoughtful manner (see link below for poem by jill essbaum).

    generally speaking, my kids, who performed well in just about every other section of the njask test, always performed poorly on these poetry questions, and said, dad, “poetry’s hard.” no other subject, to my elementary school children, was ever “hard.”

    i had to wonder how much time the teachers actually spent preparing my children for the poetry questions, or did the teachers just blow off teaching poetry because nobody really cares how kids perform on the poetry section of the test? you could do pretty crappy in the poetry section and still score very well on the overall test.

    http://www.state.nj.us/education/assessment/es/sample/NJ-LAL_sample.pdf


Posted in Uncategorized on Thursday, October 8th, 2009 by John S. O'Connor.