07 April 2011

“A poem should be motionless in time” –from “Ars Poetica” by Archibald Macleish

When I was teaching poetry to my American Literature students this past fall, I wanted them so much to like the poetry we were reading in class, but I knew that this probably wasn't going to just happen. I love poetry, but I haven't always, and I knew I would need to consider this as I approached it with them. Many of them were probably at the same place I was when I "hated" poetry, and we'd already had some painful experiences with poetry as a class (me included, and I will never look at Phillis Wheatley's "To His Excellency, General Washington" the same). I was pumped about the poetry we were about to begin working with, though, because it was Romantic and Transcendentalist poetry, which is not only part of one of my favorite literary movements but also includes many of the poets I truly enjoy reading (namely, Walt Whitman). We also got to watch Dead Poets Society, which is always a plus in my book. I threw myself and my students into the poetry unit I had put together, running at it full force with all the excitement I could muster. We were going to read old poetry! We were going to paraphrase (and they were going to LIKE it this time)! We were going to write about themes and symbols and imagery and all kinds of other figurative language devices! We were going to love poetry!

Fast forward to the groans when I handed them the poetry packets for the unit, which I had so lovingly and painstakingly typed up for them, so that they wouldn't have to lug their textbooks home. Skip even just a few more frames ahead when we cracked open those packets and started to paraphrase Whitman's "A Noiseless Patient Spider," and I was faced with the same "But why do we have to paraphrase? It's so much work!" argument that I had heard before. My excitement and enthusiasm would not be enough here. I realized that if I did not approach this differently, I was not only going to forever taint poetry for those kids who already weren't big fans, but I was running the risk of tainting it for the kids who did like it. I immediately talked with other teachers about how they combat this aversion to poetry, and one of my colleagues suggested that we take some time as a class to look at Billy Collins' "Introduction to Poetry."

It had been some time since I last looked at Collins' poem, but I decided to see if we could work with it. Upon re-reading it, I realized that I would love to be able to teach poetry by just letting my students "waterski across the surface of a poem waving at the author's name on the shore," as Collins put it. I would love to be able to just teach an appreciation of poetry. Unfortunately, there were skills that needed to be taught alongside appreciating poetry, and I had to find a way to do that. As much as I didn't want this, I kind of felt like I had to do exactly what Collins advises against and teach them to "tie the poem to a chair with rope and torture a confession out of it."

I didn't want to be in the business of bringing up a bunch of poetry sadists, though. I didn't want to stand there in front of my class, with my best Don Corleone impression on, saying, "A man who doesn't spend time with his poem can never be a real man." Understanding poetry can take time, though. A lot of time. And poetry is personal.

Poetry has always been personal for me, and poetry and I have had a love-hate relationship. It all started very fine, when I discovered Shel Silverstein and some of his classics like "Ickle Me, Pickle Me, Tickle Me Too." I loved everything about Silverstein's poetry—the stories they told, the fun rhyme scheme, the way that most of his poems rolled off my tongue easily and lyrically. (Even though I'm pretty sure my dad told me that Silverstein did a lot of drugs when I expressed my love for the poet. I don't know if this is true or not, and I've never really cared if it is.) Poetry was always fun for me, probably until high school. I remember being excited about starting poetry in my ninth grade English class. This is when the relationship sort of soured.

I know that right now you are saying, "Um, Almost Teacher? Shouldn't you have remembered this when you were trying to shove poetry down your American Lit students' throats?"

The answer is yes, by the way. I should have remembered that, and it was not long until I did.

I remember sitting in ninth grade English, ready to tackle that first poem we were assigned. I don't remember what poem was assigned or what the assignment that went along with it was. For some reason, I feel like it was a piece of Native American poetry, but I could be warping time a bit, because I had the same teacher for American Lit later. All I know is that I went home, read the poem, developed my own interpretation of it, and came to class ready to share and discuss and be all… English-y…about it. Until my classmates started sharing their interpretations. Mine was different. Some of the things I thought about the poem matched what my classmates were saying, but a lot of what they said was stuff that I hadn't even thought of. And it all sounded much more…English-y…than what I had to say. So I didn't say anything. I didn't share any of my interpretations. I didn't share any of my connections. I got all self-conscious and awkward about it, but looking back, I bet a lot of what I could have added to the discussion would have been valuable and interesting. (Maybe I'm giving myself too much credit here, but we're going with it.) No one had told me that POETRY IS PERSONAL. I think eventually this came up in one of our discussions about poetry, because I remember becoming more comfortable with poetry.

When my dad died at the end of ninth grade, I had a lot of feelings, kind of like that girl in Mean Girls. My best friend (then and now) wrote a lot of poetry, and it seemed like a good outlet, so I started pouring out a lot of what I was thinking into verse. I didn't express a lot of what was going on, except to my closet friends, and poetry became one of those friends. Most of those poems are on a floppy disk somewhere—I had the foresight to save them, but apparently not enough to save them on a technology that I could easily access later—and I'd be interested to look back on them now. I know they helped me to get through that time in my life, and I think I would still be quite proud of them. I didn't write those poems for anyone's benefit except my own, but I liked them. Because POETRY IS PERSONAL.

So, poetry and I were back to being a pretty tight group of friends. There was the occasional brat that entered our clique, one who I couldn't figure out and would sooner dismiss than deal with. One in particular sticks out in my mind; her name was "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" by T.S. Eliot, and to this day, if I ever see that poem in a dark alley, one of us will not get out alive. That's all that needs to be said about that, though. Generally, though, I could really love poetry academically and personally, once I realized that POETRY IS PERSONAL. (Again, "Prufrock," this is personal.)

When I reflected on my relationship to poetry, I realized my classroom mantra had to become "Poetry is Personal." Even though there were certain things we did have to endure, like the much-hated paraphrasing and the dreaded (and ultimately failed) TP-CASTT, I wanted my students to understand that when we read poetry, we need to experience it. We may never find out the feelings a poet truly meant to convey in a poem, but we can understand the feelings that the poem evokes in us.

Poetry by Nikki Giovanni

poetry is motion graceful
as a fawn
gentle as a teardrop
strong like the eye
finding peace in a crowded room
we poets tend to think
our words are golden
though emotion speaks too
loudly to be defined
by silence

sometimes after midnight or just before
the dawn
we sit typewriter in hand
pulling loneliness around us
forgetting our lovers or children
who are sleeping
ignoring the weary wariness
of our own logic
to compose a poem

no one understands it
it never says "love me" for poets are
beyond love
it never says "accept me" for poems seek not
acceptance but controversy
it only says "i am" and therefore
i concede that you are too
a poem is pure energy
horizontally contained
between the mind
of the poet and the ear of the reader
if it does not sing discard the ear
for poetry is song
if it does not delight discard
the heart for poetry is joy
if it does not inform then close
off the brain for it is dead
it it cannot heed the insistent message
that life is precious

which is all we poets
wrapped in our loneliness
are trying to say

That said, April is National Poetry Month. You can visit Poets.org to learn more about National Poetry Month. There are lots of ways you can celebrate National Poetry month, either in your classrooms, communities, or even better, personally. You can sign up here to receive a Poem-a-Day email from the Academy of American Poets, or you can visit here to get more information on how to get the Poem Flow App for your iPhone. I'll be celebrating by participating in "Poem in Your Pocket Day" on Thursday, April 14th. If you want to join me, pick a poem you love and carry it around in your pocket on April 14th. You're supposed to share it with friends, co-workers, family, classmates, students, or anyone else. But you don't have to. Maybe you just want to keep it to yourself. That's okay. Poetry is Personal.