Why Teaching Poetry is So Important
A committed high school teacher explains, both critically and creatively, why teaching poetry in schools is so complicated and important.
“Poetry enables teachers to teach their students how to write, read, and understand any text. Poetry can give students a healthy outlet for surging emotions,” states literature professor Andrew Simmons in an open letter to The Atlantic. Undoubtedly, most literature teachers, unless they are truly committed to their job, share Simmons’ point of view, but none of them have written such a clear essay listing the pros and cons, possibilities and disadvantages, of teaching poetry in high school. In this way, his article lends a voice to the problems of teaching poetry, and at the same clarifies something that to the student is fundamental. Poetry is not just poetry; it is a tool for the world.
High school poetry suffers from an image problem. Think of Dead Poet’s Society’s scenes of red-cheeked lads standing on desks and reciting verse, or of dowdy Dickinson imitators mooning on park benches, filling up journals with noxious chapbook fodder. There are also the tired lessons about iambic pentameter and teachers wringing interpretations from cryptic stanzas, their students bewildered and chuckling. Reading poetry is impractical, even frivolous. High school poets are antisocial and effete.
Students can learn how to utilize grammar in their own writing by studying how poets do—and do not—abide by traditional writing rules in their work. Poetry can teach writing and grammar conventions by showing what happens when poets strip them away or pervert them for effect. Dickinson often capitalizes common nouns and uses dashes instead of commas to note sudden shifts in focus. […] Cummings of course rebels completely. He usually eschews capitalization in his proto-text message poetry.
Teachers should produce literature lovers as well as keen critics, striking a balance between teaching writing, grammar, and analytical strategies and then also helping students to see that literature should be mystifying. It should resist easy interpretation and beg for return visits. Poetry serves this purpose perfectly.
The complete article is a good explanation concerning the role that literature plays in this century’s educational system. However, it also provides a valuable focus on how poetry should not “be solved” in class. It should be something that continues generating effects in the minds of those who like him, have read and loved it.
Image credit: Don McCullin
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