Teaching Students to Dislike Poetry: “What is the most boring subject/possible?”

As an avid reader, teacher, and writer/poet, I read poetry nearly every day, especially now that I am prompted wonderfully through social media such as Twitter.

So Matthew Zapruder‘s recent Understanding Poetry Is More Straightforward Than You Think spurred both my Teacher-Self and my Poet-Self with his lede:

Do you remember, as I do, how in the classroom poems were so often taught as if they were riddles? What is the poet really trying to say here? What is the theme or message of this poem? What does this word “purple” or “flower” or “grass” really mean? Like classical music, poetry has an unfortunate reputation for requiring special training and education to appreciate, which takes readers away from its true strangeness, and makes most of us feel as if we haven’t studied enough to read it.

Why Poetry, Matthew Zapruder

Teaching and writing poetry for over three decades now, I have always swum against the “I dislike poetry” tide with equal parts evangelical zeal and soul-crushing disappointment. Poetry, I learned many years ago as a first-year college student, is beautiful; it is the orchestra of words best representing the human compulsion toward language and communicating with each other.

Recently, as I read Randall Mann’s “A Better Life,” I began to cry by the lines “Fear lives in the chest/like results.” That emotional response upon a first reading wasn’t intellectually engaged with understanding fully the poem, or how traditional approaches to teaching poetry demands that readers seek out deeper meanings.

And also read recently, Margaret Ross’s “Socks” prods the reader in the opening lines toward the mundane:

The socks came in a pack of five.
What is the most boring subject
possible?

As I did with Mann’s poem, soon my heart was deeply drawn to Ross’s simple verse:

All that time
I could have touched you and didn’t
or did absentminded, getting in
or out of bed or trying to reach
something behind you.

These two poems are beautiful in the way poetry moves me, and they are both wonderful examples of how the craft of poetry can, and often does, elicit our hearts and our minds through what seems to be very simple language and topics—”a better life” in less purposeful hands is trite, and, I mean, socks?

For those of us concerned about the place of poetry in formal education and then how that fits into the place of poetry in life beyond school, we must consider what the hell we are doing that leads so many people to “I don’t like poetry.”

People all were once children who danced and sang to poetry in their children’s books and cartoons. How many children have you ever known not to revel in rhyme and word play as well as the discovery of utterances and words (o glorious taboo words!)?

And once having gone sufficiently to school, many if not most of these once-children are apt to say “I don’t like poetry.”

Not to be an ass, or simply to quibble, but I think they are actually saying that they have become exhausted with the exact problem confronted by Zapruder; that poetry has more often than not for students been the source of how one adult in the room has the key to a puzzle that is used to make the children feel stupid.

Scanning meter and rhyme scheme, conducting the literary term hunt, explaining some deeper meaning beyond the words on the page—these tasks become laborious and tell students that the tasks themselves matter more than experiencing the poem, that the poem is just some vehicle for these educational adventures in torture.

Here, then, are some suggestions for classroom moves that may better preserve the sanctity of poetry and may better insure that more (but not all) students will retain their childhood joy for words, rhyme, and the feeling of poetry:

  • Expand the responses to poetry from intellectual to emotional, allowing students to begin with (and even linger on) how poetry makes them feel.
  • Emphasize the essential concrete and narrative elements of poetry (instead of making poetry seem as if it is always about Big Meaning, and thus, mostly abstractions). What is this poem saying and who is telling us? These are powerful and important ways to engage with poetry that avoids the pressure of “What do socks represent in this poem?”
  • Focus on how poetry as a form has distinct qualities that impact the reading experience—notably that poets craft in line and stanza form (or in the case of prose poetry with the awareness that they are abandoning even that basic aspect of what makes poetry poetry; none the less, poetry always carries an awareness of lines/stanzas for poets and readers).
  • Encourage students to share their personal reactions and then ask them to distinguish those personal responses from the textual evidence in the poem.
  • Draw them to the text by asking students to identify their favorite word(s) and line(s), and then allow them to highlight the word(s) and line(s) that puzzle or confuse them. This avoids the “guess what the teacher wants” trap of students risking being wrong or right.
  • Read aloud poems, often and repeatedly. Poetry is inextricable from sound as well as how the words are shaped on the page. Most poetry is brief enough to be read aloud and multiple times, making poetry ideal for encouraging these practices in students as purposeful readers.
  • Allow frequent space for the reading of a poem to be enough—no demand for comment or analysis.
  • Share with students your genuine responses to the poems you love—and why you love them in ways that are not about being their teacher, but a human who loves poetry.

No poet writes to be the source of multiple-choice questions on an Advanced Placement Literature exam, or the focus of a 45-minute lesson on scansion and rhyme scheme.

And we can rest assured no poet writes in order to be the reason anyone dislikes poetry.

Late in Ross’s poem, the speaker confesses:

I’ve been
looking for a long time
at the stretch of table where you had
your hand. I am afraid
to touch it.

She has me mind, body, and soul, and as I finished this poem the first time, I wanted to share it with others, which I did.

None of us discussed what it means, or even her wonderfully accessible language that certainly speaks to us beyond the “boring subject” of socks.

Mostly we quoted and often agreed on our favorite lines, and then felt something satisfying about having this poem in common. Nothing about the repetition of blue or what socks really mean.

But I have been thinking because of both poems and Zapruder’s piece about “a better life” for students, for teachers, and for the promise poetry affords us if we simply let it be.

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