Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Questions about Poetry in Middle School, High School, and Beyond

A few weeks ago I received this as an email. It came when I was just getting snowed under with work and I never responded. I feel bad about that, as it’s an important topic.

Here’s the text of the email [I edited it a bit to make it anonymous]:

I’m a high school English literature and writing teacher. I am needing your help, and am hoping you will take a moment of your time to read this email in its entirety...

Throughout my teaching career, I have quickly realized that Middle School and High School teachers generally fall into three categories when it comes to teaching poetry: they either respect it but do not know how to teach it, they do not find it to be relevant to the state standards and therefore avoid it all together, or they teach it grossly incorrectly (i.e. encouraging students to crack the poetry code). The English teachers at [snip] High School where I currently teach, find it very relevant, but are at a loss when it comes to teaching poetry. I recently had a co-worker of mine ask me if [the teacher’s spouse, who is a poet] would come in to teach poetry to her 11th grade students because she said she knew “nothing about teaching poetry.” As the wife of a poet and a lover of poetry, I found this response to be all too common and a growing trend amongst Middle School and High School educators. I have taught many contemporary poems in my classroom: from Paul Hoover, Joshua Marie Wilkinson, Cole Swensen, Dean Young, and so forth. My students end up loving them. They always say: “We wish we knew what the poet was thinking.”

I need your help! I am forever asking [my spouse] for feedback regarding poetry that I can share with my co-workers and students. I now need a variety of opinions that represent many aspects and voices within the poetry world. [My spouse] has shared your email addresses with me in the hopes that all you will take a moment to respond to the below questions. I feel that is it is undoubtedly critical to teach poetry not only correctly but with an enthusiasm that aides in eliminating people's common misconceptions about poetry. I feel certain that it is at the Middle School and High School level that poetry can become an essential part of how an individual can come to understand themselves, communicate their ideas, and connect with a larger social group. If we can help them to embrace poetry AND have a solid foundation of poetics, one can only hope that poetry will be a tradition valued and respected for many generations to come. I want students and teachers to find access to poetry and poets. I am hoping that you will help me attempt to better the way poetry is taught and communicated at the post-secondary level.

I sent this query out last year, and only got a handful of responses... Hoping you can add to them...

Here are the questions:

1. What do you think are the most essential aspects of poetry that teachers should ensure young students are taught and made aware of?

2. What do you think is the greatest misconception about poetry and how can educators help to dismantle these misconceptions?

3. What words of wisdom or advice would you offer high school English teachers attempting to teach poetry/creative writing when they themselves admit to not writing prose or poetry?

4. Are there any exercises or lessons that you have found to be successful with students who've had little exposure to poetry OR with students who've had bad experiences with poetry in the past? If so, please share.

5. The question you most hear from students and teachers is: "I don't get it." Teachers then typically teach poems that they themselves can "crack." How do you get both students and teachers to enjoy negative capability, innovative writing, and innovations of style and/or form?

6. Open-- any extra comments you may want to add or share.

I know that many of you are very busy, especially with school beginning soon. I would appreciate any response you can offer, even if it is brief. If you know of any poets who would be willing to take a moment to answer these questions for me, please forward this on.


At 10/06/2010 8:21 AM, Blogger Elisa said...

Nice to know a teacher actually cares about this stuff! I provided some answers back at my blog.

At 10/06/2010 10:00 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

2. What do you think is the greatest misconception about poetry and how can educators help to dismantle these misconceptions?

The biggest single misconception I think that there is is that people often think and teach poetry as if it’s always communicating a lesson. This misconception tends to reduce the possibilities of poetry down to things that a lot of students no longer trust. A close reading of Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” reveals a much different poem than the one people keep wanting to make it.

I prefer to think of poetry as “Language Art.” That helps to separate it from “communication” and “argument.” Poetry isn’t one thing. And there are poems that one can address as communicating a lesson. It’s just that that is not always the case.

Also, teachers, because they were taught to think there’s an answer (a single, unitary answer) to the poem, are made very nervous by poems that are not supplied to them with already made lesson plans. If poetry were able to be encountered outside of “the answer,” then teachers might feel more confidence in using contemporary poetry.

I would suggest strongly Joshua Marie Wilkinson’s new book on poetics, and specifically, Stephen Burt’s essay on “difficult” poetry. A similar essay from Burt can be found in his recent collection Close Calls with Nonsense. That could be a very helpful way to begin to think of teaching poetry in a more exploratory, less thesis-driven, way.

At 10/07/2010 6:23 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

John, being an elementary school teacher I find this email quite appealing. Thanks for sharing. I know that the issues this teacher shares are accurate and need to be addressed by a wider audience.


At 10/07/2010 7:39 AM, Anonymous Jeff said...

1. The essential element of poetry for 12-16 year olds is textures of language use, from different languages used in a "home" language (i.e., Spanish words pulled into English cognates or just the original Spanish word/phrase) to idioms, and colloquialisms, historical styles, to tropes (simile/metaphor/metonymy et. al.). Can students be made aware of the "strata" of the English language and the sheer number of ways this "contexture" can be manipulated -- made?

2. The greatest misconception is that poetry belongs to an elite (of the social, economic, education). The only thing that will talk kids out of this is a literary historical education, Keats & Blake forward.

3. as Marvin Bell says: Teacher does the assignments!

4. With 18 year olds, I teach Plath's Mushrooms, and then ask them to write 10 minutes in the voice of an inanimate object; if they get stuck they're to pay attention to the object's habitual dwelling, or immediate vista --

5. Well, they're not going to get "innovative" writing unless they understand what it's improvising from/on. I have recently tried Dora Malech on freshman, because I thought there's something in her tone they'll recognize, but I was sent back to my own understanding of lexical sets, metaphor/simile/metonymy -- i.e., the basics.

Jeff Hamilton

At 10/08/2010 5:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi John--

The question that I find the most intriguing is the one in which you are most critical of teachers who depend on thematic readings (ie poems that they can crack).

I, too, have a problem with that. Not only does it limit the class discussion, but doesn't create idiosyncratic, against-the-grain readings. How many times can we here "this is about the loss of innocence" "this is about the oppression of women, ie. gays, ie any minority)...

At the same time, I'd be curious about your syllabus--I feel that so many smart teachers often offer their students texts that in no way they can comprehend--they don't have the skills...

Let's face, a personal narrative with ambiguities and tonal shifts is hard for them to grasp--we can critique the terms Tone and Voice (words that make me weary of any poetry reader in our generation) but in terms of the classroom, it's important to start somewhere.

I know that in my classroom--I'm teaching a class on the short/short story and prose poem--I use an anthology, the unsurprising "Best American Prose Poems" and then four individual books: Mullen, Edson, Amelia Gray, and Susan Manguso. For them, Mullen is Innovative Writing, would you say so about your undergrads?

I feel that at their level the idea of teaching an excerpt of a excerpt of Stein's "Tender Buttons" which is what I did was very, very difficult for them, and so was a poem or two by Mullen. Is that Innovative Writing--I feel that at the undergrad level I'm pushing them pretty far, no?

I feel when I read a number of blogs by very smart poets--and they talk specifically about what books they teach in class, I don't believe their students are grasping it.

So I guess what I'm asking is What is Innovative to you?

Steve Fellner

At 10/09/2010 8:06 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


What is innovative to me. Good question. Well, the email in my post was from a High School teacher, so I was thinking toward the cannon for them. Lit books and that sort of thing.

As for my own syllabus, I don’t teach literature much. When I do it’s also from an anthology that the university has adopted (The large six or so volume Norton and the Longman, neither of which are strong on contemporary or anything approaching innovative).

When I’m putting a syllabus together for creative writing courses (we don’t have a creative writing major or MFA), I do so to give them a wide option of possibilities. Just because I like more “innovative” writing doesn’t mean they should all become “innovative” writers. I hate telling people what to do, but I like options and people who can defend what they like and what they do.

Some writers I like to bring in to lit or cw courses when I can include poets like Ron Padgett, Ashbery, O’Hara, Warsh, Welish, from that aesthetic. As for younger poets, there are several poems from Mary Jo Bang (from Louise in Love) that I like to bring in, as well as work from Thomas Lux, Rae Armantrout, Bin Ramke, Martha Ronk, Matthew Zapruder, Edson. I think all of these writers have “innovative” credentials, but none of them are especially “difficult,” in the ways that more fragmented work can be. So we can look at sentences. How pedestrian, communicative, daily language is used in juxtaposition with more associative, surreal elements.

It’s more difficult for me to talk about poets like Billy Collins, etc., because these poems mostly are working in thematic readings. When I work with them (Sharon Olds, Rita Dove, and a host of others), I try to push “against the grain” readings anyway. Assumptions about culture and the way the world works. It can often be fun, and it does help them read (sometimes) poets like Ashbery, where we can ask the same questions, just without that first, surface content reading. But, like I said, I don’t get to do this very often at all. Maybe a couple weeks every other year as the poetry section of a second-year intro to lit.

At 10/09/2010 10:00 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 10/09/2010 10:01 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

Steve and John,

Should you be teaching to their level, or above it?

I'm personally for an even mix. I just graduated from a program earlier this year, and in my time there I encountered everthing from Stein to O'Hara. Granted, nearly everything I read fell into what has been called the "other tradition", it was a wide enough selection that I felt both comfortable and challeneged.

However, the experiences I'm most grateful there are the ones that have been most challenging.

I read Ulysses my first semester as part a class on Modernism. Did I understand everything? Hell no, but it certainly improved my reading level. It also served as a jumping off point on how to experiment with language for me.

I also did a close reading on Tender Buttons last year. It was one of the texts on the syllabus and I could've picked other, more easily accessible ones to write about (Exercises in Style, Recyclopedia, Crystallography). Something about reading it several times through cracked it open and at least made an intention visible.

Indeed, these are difficult texts, but how are they being taught? In the case of Stein and Joyce, I had brilliant teachers who gave me a few pointers. These need to be taught with a disclaimer: throw away your pre-conceived notions about what a novel or a poem is. At least in the case of Stein, wasn't that a large part of her project?

Of course, no classroom is filled with students of identical ability, and there will always be some who don't "get it" or reject it for whatever reason, but shouldn't we be challenged as students?

At 10/10/2010 9:47 AM, Blogger Steve Fellner said...

Dear Fuzz,

Let me clarify. I'm teaching a 300-level (they've already taken an Intro to Lit course) lit class. As a teacher, I think you know at a certain point what poet a student would embrace and what they would resist.

Poe-Edson-they like
Stein-Mullen-they don't like

(I do teach at SUNY Brockport--a lot of first generation college students, so they're not pretentious which actually can work against me as a teacher. When kids are rick, they know what the knowing of literature can access--certain social circles, class standings, etc.)

For the "average" student, you put a Mullen prose poem in front of them and they'll be disappointed, upset (esp if they already did an excerpt of an excerpt of Stein, enough of this already, they say silently--I would never assign the whole Tender Buttons--they won't read it, and I'm an intimidating teacher who assigns quizzes every day in workshop and lit)

It takes them a lot to understand

1.) you don't have to "relate" to a poem (esp. since they never do, all they're saying is its first person narrative, one can offer a thematic reading)

2.) the most important thing we can teach is perhaps the relationship between "understanding" and the speed of reading.

i LOVE mary jo bang, but to assign more than a poem one two poems at once, and they'll be lost and wont do it (you wouldnt be able to convince me that most student would buckle down and do it)--this doesn't mean you shouldn't teach it obviously, but that you have to be very careful in your assignments, and that not reading much in terms of actual words doesnt mean you spend last time on it than a longer prose assignment ...thats tough

At 10/11/2010 10:38 AM, Anonymous Dave Inman said...

It's an important pedagogical issue, and a there is a fascinating discussion about it unfolding in the comments section of the post. To my mind, the most essential elements of poetry to teach in secondary schools are word play and word choice.

Word Play: There are so many poems from so many eras that demonstrate just how much fun the English language can be. From Catullus to Shakespeare to William Carlos Williams to Billy Collins, poetry can teach students to enjoy words in a way that no other use of the English language can.

Word Choice: The words in a poem do more work than the words in any other subset of literature. Diction is, of course, critical to all good writing, but the importance that each word carries its weight is especially evident when seen in the context of a poem's structure and rhythm.

A side benefit of focusing on these aspects of poetry is that this kind of approach gives us another way into the poem. Job one does not have to be to decode the poem, but in exploring the way the words work and play together, some meaning is more likely to come organically from it.

For anyone interested in finding lesson plans for poetry for all grade levels and content areas, I highly recommend the Louisiana Poetry Project (for which I periodically contribute lesson plans). As the name suggests, the organization is focused on poets and poetry from Louisiana, but of course the poems are relevant anywhere. There is a poem and at least one lesson plan for every school day of the year, and some of the plans could be adapted to fit other poems as well. It's a great place to start if you want help and ideas for teaching poetry.

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