I really don’t. But I don’t love it either.
As a retired English teacher this is practically heretical. Through most of my 36 years of teaching, I used poetry sparingly, but during the last 10, when I began teaching Advanced Placement English for seniors, it needed to become a central part of my curriculum in order to prepare kids for the AP Literature and Composition Exam.
Early on, I went to every AP Lit workshop I could find and tried to glean an approach, a unit, a set list of poems or literary terms that would lead me to a greater comfort level, and I discovered many wonderful plans created by lit teachers much smarter than me. But none of them were a fit for me and my understanding of how 17-year-olds think. Some of the literary terms were so obscure that even if I could force a kid to memorize the definitions, the chances of the student actually recognizing the technique or being able to comment on its relevance seemed iffy at best. When it came to teaching meter (the metric rhythm of a poem), which some of my colleagues would spend hours on with great relish, I was a total failure. Beyond iambic pentameter, I couldn’t recognize a line that was trochaic, spondaic, or anapestic if you held a gun to my head.
So, I shortened and simplified my list of lit terms, focusing on ones that kids could actually remember and that seemed most often applicable to the kinds of poems that showed up on the test. I abandoned meter entirely with nary a feeling of guilt, and I created Poetry Day.
I decided that I needed to provide opportunities for kids to sit together, look at dozens of poems, struggle through them, and come to some kind of meaning. I wanted them to become a poetry salon, one day a week, and to begin to look to each other for understanding with as little help from me as possible.
Poetry Day was a risk for me, and I firmly expected it to be a failure. My idea was that once a week, four students would sign up ahead of time and be tasked with the responsibility of choosing a poem from our anthology for discussion. The class would form a circle and each of the chosen students would be the discussion leader for the poem that he or she had selected. My role (I hoped) would simply be to sit in back and keep track of participation and try to keep my mouth shut.
The discussion leaders’ job was simply to read the poem, maybe take a minute to tell why they had chosen it, and then direct the traffic of the hoped-for participation that would then follow. The shock to me was that the participation came. The kids seemed to like the new approach–the freedom to explore, no teacher to tell them the “right” answer, how the more they looked at the poem, the more that they began to see. What excited me the most was seeing how the students would throw out an assertion, listen to the response of their classmates, and then reconsider and revise their thinking. On an exceptional day, I might say nothing more during the entire hour than, “Good job. Let’s move on to the next poem.” Those days felt like great successes to me. I had created an opportunity where kids were learning, questioning, thinking, cooperating with the gentlest bit of direction from me. Those days felt like good teaching.
Not every Poetry Day went that well. The ebb and flow of the semester, the ebb and flow student enthusiasm, the absence of caffeine, the approach of more important things like prom, all made for good and bad days. My role evolved also. I found that it helped to ask clarifying questions and force students to refine their thinking when they were oh-so-close to a gem of an idea, but might be missing a critical element. Then there were the times when, despite their best efforts, they simply missed the meaning entirely, and I’d have to force them, as a class, to go back to the poem, look more closely, think again. We jokingly established a part of the classroom that we labeled as “left field” where we figuratively sent students whose interpretations had flown so far off track that I had to call them on it. In fact, it became part of our lexicon. Students would sometimes begin their explanation of a difficult passage with, “This may be out in left field, but I think…” I absolutely loved them for that.
My most memorable Poetry Day moment came when one of my student’s had chosen Deborah Pope’s agonizingly painful and beautiful poem, “Getting Through.”
Like a car stuck in gear,
a chicken too stupid to tell
its head is gone,
or sound ratcheting on
long after the film
has jumped the reel,
or a phone
ringing and ringing
in the house they have all
moved away from,
through rooms where dust
is a deepening skin,
and the locks unneeded,
so I go on loving you,
my heart blundering on,
a muscle spilling out
what is no longer wanted
and my words hurtling past,
like a train off its track
toward a boarded-up station,
closed for years,
like some last speaker
of a beautiful language
no one else can hear.
I remember the discussion leader reading the poem aloud and nearly 40 kids staring at the text with no idea of what to say. I suggested the leader read it aloud once more, which we did quite often when confronted with a challenging poem.
The silence continued until suddenly Sarah, a thoughtful and sensitive young woman, gasped as she internalized the sadness and the pain of the poem. In that one moment, she had grasped the whole poem with it’s string of vivid similes, each becoming more detailed, that described the speaker’s devastating sense of loss and hopelessness. Once she gave the class the key, the images suddenly made sense, and the class piled on with an appreciation of the beauty of the language and the universality of the experience of loss.
I truly loved poetry on that particular day. Sarah’s gasp, her identification with the pain of the speaker, spoke to everything that I find to be important about poetry. The poet that can distill the human experience, can craft the perfect metaphor, provides a human connection that helps us to defy loneliness and isolation. They are magicians. They create the connection that tells us that, even in our worst moments, we are not alone.