“If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way?”
–from a letter by Emily Dickinson
By the Waters of Babylon
I’ve been thinking again about teaching poetry, how to do it, how not to do it. I know it’ve written about it many times before, but I’m so passionate about it that it’s not old yet. I find I have more to say. Several different conversations popped up here, there, and everywhere this week, which I need to synthesize and rework in my head to see what they all add up to. It’s a favorite pastime of mine, thinking about how we teach poetry and how teaching poetry the wrong way can kill the joy.
Nothing breaks my heart more than when I see a homeschooling mother confess that she hates poetry. (I saw it again on Facebook this week!) I wonder what terrible pedagogical abuse lurks in her past that killed the joy and made poetry — Poetry!— into a wasteland for her. I want to weep.
By the waters of Babylon we sat and wept / On the willows we hung up our harps / Oh how can we sing for our captors one of Zion’s songs?
Surely the inability to hear and appreciate the music of poetry is even worse than the inability to sing. The poet who hangs up his harp on the willow at least feels the words burning in his heart, a sorrow too full for words than then boils over into one of my favorite songs, how could he not give voice to that? That most arresting image: may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, may my hand wither if I forget you…. Even the idea of being unable to write poetry itself becomes a poem. But what words for the place where words fail and meanings wither and give nothing to the heart, neither joy nor sadness but only frustration and boredom? Or maybe Eliot’s fear in an handful of dust?
Thou Shalt Not Murder Poetry
So how to avoid that most tragic of fates? How to avoid murdering poetry in the heart?
First, I think better to not teach poetry at all than to teach it in such a way as to make it a chore, a task, a burden.
Better to read no poetry at all than to read it only to kill it.
But then having divested ourselves of the idea of the necessity of poetry at any cost, does that then open up a space to not teach poetry but to instead enjoy it with our students? I’m reminded that the Latin root of student, studio, means I am eager. Most of all I want to cultivate that eagerness, that desire and joy. If my children leave their schooling years with a handful of poems tucked in their memory and a love of poetry nestled in their breasts, I will be content.
But what if you hate poetry yourself and find no enjoyment in it? Should you just skip it? Is it better to fake enjoyment of poetry with kids in the hopes that eventually it might grow on you, or to neglect it altogether? I’ve certainly seen reports by mothers who used to hate poetry and who at first approached it as a chore but after reading and memorizing with children found that it began to be something they looked forward to too as the words seeped into their being and began to work on their imaginations.
I think so long as all you are doing is reading and memorizing poetry, if you aren’t trying to analyze it and if you feel no duty to understand it, then simply enduring it might indeed bear fruit? I’d love to hear from more former poetry haters who have changed their minds. And for that matter from poetry haters who still find it a chore. I want to hear those stories and have those conversations.
Does Survival Count?
A case study of what’s wrong with how poetry is treated in schools: I Can’t Answer These Texas Standardized Test Questions About My Own Poems, an essay by poet Sara Holbrook who finds that the State of Texas has included two of her poems on standardized tests to the bafflement of teachers and students alike.
Seriously? Hundreds of my poems in print and they choose THAT one? Self-loathing and self-hate? Kids need an extra serving of those emotions on testing day?
I apologize to those kids. I apologize to their teachers. Boy howdy, I apologize to the entire state of Texas. I know the ‘90s were supposed to be some kind of golden age, but I had my bad days and, clearly, these words are the pan drippings of one of them. Did I have a purpose for writing it?
Does survival count?
Teachers are also trying to survive as they are tasked with teaching kids how to take these tests, which they do by digging through past tests, posted online. Forget joy of language and the fun of discovery in poetry, this is line-by-line dissection, painful and delivered without anesthetic. One teacher wrote to me last month, working after 10 p.m., trying to figure out the test maker’s interpretation of my poem MIDNIGHT. . .
Here you can practically see the process of the death of poetry. You can peek between the lines to see those students in their classrooms faced with these bleak poems, these senseless choices: I must be dumb. This poetry stuff doesn’t make any sense. I don’t get it. I must be bad at poetry. I don’t like poetry. I HATE poetry. Well to paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, if poetry is the sort of thing that can fit onto a standardized test, then to hell with it. I don’t believe in that kind of poetry either.
Whose Beer This Is I Think I Know
What’s wrong with the standardized test approach to poetry? First it’s treating poetry as if it were a word problem, as if the correct answer to how to read a line of poetry could be so constricted, chosen among a, b, c, and d. It’s so wrong-headed it makes me cry.
I can think of moments where, while taking tests, poetry took wing and soared. Consider these two bookends of my time at UD. First, the competitive exam, a sort of written test that could qualify you for a scholarship, had a poem, Rilke’s The Panther, I think it was. I remember siting in that classroom writing about those lines, the burning epiphany as I found something to say and words to say it. I don’t remember what I wrote almost twenty years ago, but I remember the passion and the glory of that moment when I didn’t care about the scholarship or anything else except the way I’d found into the puzzle of the poem and the joy of fitting the pieces together. It was perhaps at that moment when I knew, knew that UD was the school for me.
And then the capstone of my senior year. Not the end, but it might as well have been, for after its climax what else mattered: Senior Comprehensive Exams. We had to be able to identify all the poems on a long list, author, title, from any quoted lines. So a bunch of us gathered in my apartment living room to quiz each other about poems, to throw lines at each other, to play Stump the English Major. Really it was a high point, all those lines of poetry flying back and forth, an invisible web of words. It was magical. And after the exam we went back to the apartment again for a celebratory drink and with sidewalk chalk we covered the concrete walls of our balcony with bastardized lines of poetry in which we replaced key nouns with the word beer: “I do not know much about gods, but I believe that Shiner is a strong brown god,” and “Thirteen Ways of Looking at My Beer,” and “Whose Beer this is I think I know…” We got a write-up from the housing director who lived in the apartment above us. I think he was not amused by all the beer graffiti, afraid parents might get the wrong idea? But we were so angry about it, about having to wash off our exultant triumphal display of poetry. Poetry!
And in between those two poles, many classes in which we read poetry, many essays and exams in which I wrote about poetry. And among them nary an example of poetry pedagogy done wrong.
What was it about UD’s exams that was different than this Texas standardized test? First, there was no dynamic of right answer/wrong answer. You had to support your argument with examples from the text, but that was the measure, not a teacher’s preconceived notions. You needed to base your reading on the text itself, but as long a you argued your case well, you were free to dive deep and head out into the interpretive wilderness in whichever direction your heart desired. Second, I was old enough to do that kind of intellectual work. In schools too often analysis is introduced too early and before delight and appreciation have been allowed to take hold, before a relationship has developed between the student and the words.
A Poetry-Centered Curriculum
In her Poetry Friday post Kortney Garrison linked to this beautiful little Twitter conversation between Sally Thomas, Melissa Wiley, Kortney and others about the possibilities of a poetry-centered curriculum.
A poetry-centered curriculum. I like that idea. Putting poetry in the center. I’m not sure how it would work, because in our house poetry is certainly present but it mostly seems to haunt the periphery. I’m often reaching for a book to read a poem that seems to fit but I’m perhaps not as mindful as I could be to be sure that poetry takes the center stage. We could do more. A goal to aim for? I’m not quite ready, maybe, to follow this train of thought, tacked on like a afterthought to this rant about the murder of poetry.
But it seems important. The idea that poetry could be moved from that space, that narrow place where poems are held in a pen and sheared of their meaning like sheep in the spring, moved to a wide open field where they could dance under the sun, free to frolic unshorn. A vision of a different way of reading poetry, a different kind of poetry education. A different sort of place for poetry in the classroom, in the homeschool, in the home, in the heart. It’s an idea worth returning to.
Something Started in My Soul
by Pablo Neruda
And it was at that age … Poetry arrived
in search of me. I don’t know, I don’t know where
it came from, from winter or a river.
I don’t know how or when,
no they were not voices, they were not
words, nor silence,
but from a street I was summoned,
from the branches of night,
abruptly from the others,
among violent fires
or returning alone,
there I was without a face
and it touched me.
I did not know what to say, my mouth
had no way
my eyes were blind,
and something started in my soul,
fever or forgotten wings,
and I made my own way,
and I wrote the first faint line,
faint, without substance, pure
of someone who knows nothing,
and suddenly I saw
with arrows, fire and flowers,
the winding night, the universe.
And I, infinitesimal being,
drunk with the great starry
likeness, image of
felt myself a pure part
of the abyss,
I wheeled with the stars,
my heart broke loose on the wind.
About the image. We saw Goya’s portrait of the Duchess of Alba at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. She’s an arresting figure, so very proud and so very present. I especially loved the detail of Goya’s signature written in the sand at her feet: Only Goya. Only Goya could have painted me.
Yes, she’s pointing at his signature. But she also seems to be pointing at the earth: here I stand. Here, this place, this moment in time. And that’s what poetry does, too. It stands and points at this moment in time, this breath, this place, this person, this thing. Here. Look. See.
Right there on the sand next to her magnificent boots: a poem of only two words?