Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Rethinking Poetry

I love when lines of poetry subtly slide into a conversation. Poetry takes hold of us, lurks somewhere in the recesses of memory until the moment we need it again, whether for reference, humor, or comfort. Good verse follows us all the days of our lives. So why is it that when students enter my classroom each fall, they nearly froth when I introduce the first poem, ready to rip it to shreds. They strangle the vocabulary words with red circles, never really planning to look up the definitions. They slash through the metaphors and similes, and cage the first letters of words to jail the alliterations, and they do not feel the poem wailing against such injury. The poet Billy Collins expresses this same sentiment at the close of his poem “Introduction to Poetry.”
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

This is what English teachers do to poetry, myself included. We are wonderful teachers of device; we help our students understand the difference between metaphor and metonymy, introduce allusions and analogies, and dissect significant stanza breaks. But do we put the pieces back together? I’m guilty of letting students walk out with the bell, leaving a poem bound and gagged, slumped lifeless in the shadows of room 203.

I am not arguing that the craft of poetry should not be taught. In fact reading some of Nancie Atwell’s pieces has me thinking about how I could utilize poetry more often and effectively in my classroom. Except this time, instead of solely focusing on the style and structure of a poem, I want to find more opportunities for students to react to poetry on the visceral level. As Atwell describes in the introduction to “A Poem A Day: A Guide to Naming the World,” poetry as a genre gives students a “vocabulary for naming emotions and relations” (8). It is from these shared emotional responses and connections to poetry that students begin to also understand and appreciate the craft of the genre. Their connections to verse help them “figure out what matters, explore it, try to make sense of it, endeavor to change it, and help themselves begin to live lives of worth” (2). It is imperative that I present poetry in such a way. It was the poet Wallace Stevens who stated that the very purpose of poetry was “to help people live their lives.” What could be more essential to my teaching? If nothing else, I want students to find one poem or just one line that they can carry around in the pocket of their memory for a lifetime.

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