Poetry for the people
“Poetry is really for people. It’s not just for professors. It’s not just for poets. Poetry should be reaching a broad audience, maybe not everyone, but a broader audience.” Dana Gioia — from the Poetry Foundation’s Poetry Off the Shelf podcast.
Gioia was talking about the office of the U.S. Poet laureate and how that office has worked to bring poetry to more people. He was prompted to comment Natasha Tretheway’s appointment to the office this year. He had nothing but praise for her as a poet and her selection to the nation’s highest literary office. I hope she will be effective in promoting poetry in the public school with more innovative programs.
What Poet Laureates Do
Besides reading their own poetry once a year at a big shindig in Washington D.C. and adding to the archive of recorded poetry at the Library of Congress, each poet laureate initiates projects that they become known for. Gwendolyn Brooks promoted the writing of poetry with elementary school students. Billy Collins made poetry easily available to high students. Poet Laureate Kay Ryan’s created Poetry for the Mind, including a community college poetry contest. These are all great programs but more are needed. Hopefully, Natasha Trethewey’s appointment as poet laureate will continue this fine tradition.
Poetry in Public Schools
As a parent of children in public schools I can say we need a better way to get poetry in the hands and hearts of our students. From a parent and poet’s perspective, we need more and higher quality poetry programs so students can benefit from a vigorous literary education.
Schools need to get with it in terms of using poetry in the classroom. My son and daughter have seen little poetry in their schools. When they do a lot of it is sub par sing-song ditties or passionless, cliché ridden ballads guaranteed to steer students away from poetry. These texts tend to lower student expectations that poetry can provide a powerful culturally enriching activity. Text books seem to use poetry like fillers or something fun to drink so as to wash down the otherwise dry subject matter. The problem is the drink is sour.
My daughter’s ninth-grade English text-book throws in a few poems and follows them with the usual questions to put people to sleep. These do more damage by convincing the vast majority of students that poetry is simply an extension of science class where poems are simply frogs to be dissected to see what makes them tick. Of course, this is approach is backward. First you want students to like and enjoy poetry not kill it and pick over its bones. The fun is in the reading and reciting. Students own voices reading poems is enjoyable and brings the poems to life, even poems from centuries past.
Here’s some sample questions:
“How does the poet see himself in this poem?”
“Why does the poet use the term ________ to describe his experience?”
“What do you think the poet saying about contemporary america?”
Rolled eyes and snores from around the room. Questions like these will just about guarantee there will be no poets, let alone poetasters, coming from this class.
Reading poetry is a gas
The fun of poetry is in the reading and reciting. Students own voices bring poems to life, even poems from centuries past. With few exceptions, poems were made to be read. The meter of good poems brings them to life with the students own breathing. There is an intimate connection between the life of the student and the life of the poem. This is usually found in voiced recitation and is appreciated by an audience at a public reading. There is no substitute for this. No recording or pod cast can duplicate this social and cultural experience.
My son discovered this in the fourth-grade. Unfortunately, he will begin attending high school this fall but has only seen one poetry assignment in his entire school career. In the fourth-grade he was required to pick out a poem, memorize it and recite it in front of the class. He was then to ask the class if they had any questions about the poem and be able to discuss the poem and offer facts about the author.
He chose, Lewis Carroll’s, “Crocodile,” a short poem that suited his tastes for dangerous animals and adventurous story themes. With this assignment I thought we were getting somewhere and we were. By memorizing it he learned a lot about the poem. The most valuable lesson was that he leaned that poems have hidden depths that only reveal themselves in reading and rereading to memorize. Things that didn’t come out on the first, second or third read came through on subsequent readings. He even looked up pictures of crocodiles to see if indeed they smile, as it says in the poem. It turned out, no surprise to me, the poem was true to life.
Not only did he learn poems were cool, he learned how to speak loudly and clearly in public. He could have learned this by reciting anything but the poem’s diction and meter helped him wrap his young tongue around some challenging vowel and consonant combinations. All this from looking and reading over one poem for a recitation.
What other teaching moment miracles would come if schools seriously taught poetry from kindergarten on up? I bet reading scores would soar, public speaking would improve and being conversant in complex social thought would well serve the student on entering the market place. Students would also become conversant in what makes a good poem.
I hope Natasha Trethewey will lobby the Department of Education, the National Education Association, the National Association of Teachers and any organization that has influence on curriculum development that using poetry as the meat and potatoes, not the side dishes, of English studies will reap great rewards for students. She could tell them the role poetry played in her life and education. She should tell them we need more poetry appreciation, recitation and writing in schools at every grade. I hope she will read them some of her fine poems. Maybe she can go on a reading tour to public high schools in each state. I’m sure she’ll come up with more imaginative ways to bring more poetry to more people. I just hope she does not forget our nation’s public schools.