How Students Come to Love Poetry
Updated: Apr 9, 2020
It’s a good time to read and listen to poetry. It’s a very good time to write poetry.
Billy Collins starts “Introduction to Poetry” by talking about how he asks his students to read poetry:
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I remember listening to Christian Wiman of Poetry magazine on PBS say that people might not like poetry because their teachers taught them to write a thesis statement, a single meaning, instead of many. A poem contains limitless possibilities, but this is also a reason that students get frustrated with poetry. They want a single answer, because one answer is easier than many. Our politics often get reduced to a single answer without considering that good solutions often contain many ideas, not one.
The uncertainty of poetry is often where students get lost, but where I wallow. Where things get hazy, things reveal their beauty, and their complexity. Whenever I don’t know, I sink my teeth in. That’s where we linger, hang around for a while, and let our minds run away to a place that doesn’t exist in the poem. The wildness of the language draws us in. The less realistic it is, the less it makes sense, the more it reveals the truth to us. We must let our imagination take over. Like a great solution in physics, the poem must move from fragmented reality to fragmented reality before coming together. Poetry, in its structure and in its chaos, fine-tunes existence, and allows the reader to both embrace the mysteries of life and find answers to life’s questions. Every time you come back to a great poem, it reveals more meanings. If music moves a body, poetry moves the mind.
Some students may accept these challenges of poetry, but others will love it more for its sounds. By sounds I mean not only its poetic sounds, but its emotional sounds, the sounds it brings out of us when we read it out loud. Poetry, while confounding us with its metaphors and symbols, also makes perfect sense because it’s a story with some line breaks thrown in.
I always start a poetry unit with videos from Motion Poems, Button Poetry, Def Poetry Jam, Poetry Out Loud, or Robert Pinsky’s Favorite Poem Project. My favorite poet to listen to is Aja Monet – when I saw her read her poetry at the Dodge Poetry Festival in Newark, I got goosebumps. I thought, this is how poetry is supposed to sound. She mesmerizes with a mixture of honesty, detail, depth, explosiveness, and place.
I end a poetry unit by asking students to write a poem. Give me the best you’ve got, I tell them. Say something I won’t forget. Use all the techniques you’ve just learned. Play with the structure, the rhyme scheme, the sounds, the imagery, the spacing, the metaphors, and the punctuation. It’s your poem. You can say whatever you want. When a student interprets a metaphor, they must imagine what the poets wants. When they create a metaphor, they express their reality with their own perspective and voice.
What better time to be alone with our thoughts and figure out life. What better time to write poetry and listen to each other. Maybe it’s time to write an essay on poetry, but maybe it’s time to record a long interpretation of a poem. Maybe it’s time to write a poem, and then record a reading of it.
Today I listened to a 7-minute voice recording from one of my students, where she compared an episode of Serial, Season 3 to a passage in Great Expectations. It was a little bit of analysis, a little bit of storytelling, a little bit of emotion, and a little bit of poetry. Think of that lovely common expression, it was so poetic. Poetry is everywhere. It’s in novels, in songs, in news articles, in movies and shows, and in plays. It’s all around us, in our conversations and in our minds.
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