Toward a Poetry-Centered Curriculum?

Toward a Poetry-Centered Curriculum?

Portrait of the Duchess of Alba by Francisco Goya

“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
with names,
my eyes were blind,
and something started in my soul,
fever or forgotten wings,
and I made my own way,
that fire,
and I wrote the first faint line,
faint, without substance, pure
pure wisdom
of someone who knows nothing,
and suddenly I saw
the heavens
and open,
palpitating plantations,
shadow perforated,
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.

“Solo Goya” detail from The Duchess of Alba.

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?

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  • Yes, it’s certainly better to leave poetry alone than ‘to read it only to kill it.’ At least your student will then have every chance of falling in love on his own at a later date.
    This post makes me think of my high school honors English class where I found my first love for poetry and literature. Your Senior Comprehensives reminded me of our dreaded but thrilling poetry Quote Test, in which we had to be familiar with about eighty poems and be able to identify lines by title and author. Takes me right back to my parents’ kitchen table, with a little lamp and pot of coffee as I studied alone in the wee hours. I remember the ‘brain’ of the class has most of the poems memorized. (She was the girl who memorized all the geometry proofs as well.) We complained and fussed with fright but admittedly loved the thrill and immersion into Keats and Shelley and Byron and all the rest. Magical, as you said. And your beer poems totally cracked me up!

  • I really, really like how you used the portrait to illustrate this article.

    – It’s a fantastic portrait just on its own, so I was happy to encounter it. She’s got so much attitude in the way she stands, in the downward-pointing finger and the direct gaze. I enjoyed just looking at it for a moment without thinking about it except to wonder briefly why you chose this one instead of another, and then went on.

    – The puzzle of why you might choose one seemingly unrelated work of art to incorporate into your article is a little bit like the puzzle of why a poet chooses one word or turn of phrase instead of another. Sometimes when you read a poem there is no puzzle about any words, although there may be appreciation of the choice of words that seem perfectly, precisely appropriate. But other times the words chosen may seem odd or out of place, and that could be mere clumsiness, or affectation; but it also could be a deliberate choice, and has to be puzzled out a bit to see what lies behind it.

    – You resolved the mystery by the end of the article and left me chiding myself (good-naturedly!) for not having studied the picture more closely. Of *course* I should have followed the pointing finger down to the sand and scrutinized it for detail! And of *course* the painting was even, er, sassier (let’s say audacious) than I realized! And yes, you’re absolutely right that “solo Goya” is a poem in only two words, a puzzle only for those who are willing to hunt for it.

    – But *on the other hand* — and this is what makes Goya great, and by analogy, what makes great poetry great (more than just singing, and more than working mainly just on hiding puzzles or on turning conventional language upside-down) is that *even though the puzzle is there* the picture can be thoroughly enjoyed just as a portrait without thinking very hard about it. It’s beautiful and intriguing and draws you in just as a portrait, or even at a lower level, as brushstrokes. It’s enjoyable all the way down at whatever level you want to dive.

    So. Great job. This is a very well-crafted blog post and honestly, if you tweaked it a little for a less bloggy format, I think it would make a good magazine submission (print or online). Bravo!

    • Thank you. I love your thoughts on the picture. The choice of the portrait, like many of my poems, was a moment of serendipity. And perhaps something unconscious pushing me? I was stumped at first as to what art to choose. I knew I wanted art and I knew I wanted it to not be a pretty landscape, something predictable and pat. So I went to Google Image Search, which is usually my first stop for picking illustrations for my posts. I often lean to O’Keeffe and I might have gone with her, but I’ve used her several times in the past week and I wanted something different and fresh. So I just typed in “painting” and one of the images on the first page was Goya’s painting of Chronos eating his children. I recognized it and while not really wanting that painting, I thought, I like Goya, maybe there will be something of his I can use. I wasn’t really much of a Goya fan until we saw the exhibit at the MFA, but seeing them in person really made the paintings resonate in a way they hadn’t in books and postcards. Even pictures which I had thought were too sentimental when I’d seen reproductions felt alive and important when seen in person.

      I really liked the Duchess of Alba when I saw her at the museum, both this one and the earlier one of her in white in a similar pose. It is a striking portrait, it grabs your attention from across the room, and perhaps the mystery of the signature in the sand was part of what pulled me to it as an illustration for this post, but I think it was mostly that pointing finger, which really does seem a good icon for what I think the poet does.

      I do love the analogy, which I think you draw out well, how choosing an image, like choosing a word, is an act of creation of a sort, a choice that is fun to puzzle out.

  • …happy sigh. I love this post and look forward to seeing where the train of thought takes you. I enjoy visiting the #poetryteatime tag on Instagram (a Brave Writer thing) to see all the happy faces of kids with poems and snacks before them. 🙂

    Can’t wait to share the Goya painting with miss Rilla.

    Thirteen ways of looking at a beer! I’m cracking up. Love it. Reminds me a little of the time my MFA poetry workshop wrote variations on a misheard phrase (twenty-five miles of caged birds). Oh wait, I think I wrote about this once! ::googles own blog::

  • I probably count as a former poetry hater. By training I’m an engineer and I avoided English classes as much as possible in school. I love to read and I’m a decent writer for an engineer, but English sapped all of th enjoyment out of books and I never ‘got’ poetry. When I started looking into homeschooling I was a little apprehensive about the poetry part. How on earth can I possibly teach poetry? We started with ‘A Childs Garden of Verses’ which was unlike any poetry I’d seen before, and when my then 3yo asked every time for ‘the one about the boats’ I thought maybe this would be okay after all. My oldest is now 8, and we haven’t made it past the y1 poetry selections, but nobody in my house hates poetry, and we all know some, so I suppose we are doing something right. I can’t teach poetry, but I can enjoy it with my kids, so maybe I don’t need to.

    • “English sapped all of the enjoyment out of books and I never ‘got’ poetry.”

      That is exactly what I’m talking about. All the enjoyment being sucked out of books. I loved reading, I was the bookworm with her face stuck in a book from as early as I can remember. And yet I can think of too many teachers who did their best to sap the joy. Oh I know they’d be appalled to think that’s what they were doing but it was. I thought I hated Jane Austen because of the high school teacher whose favorite novel was Pride and Prejudice. I don’t even remember what she said about it, I just remember I was much more interested in Mary Stewart that year. But if Mrs T loved Pride and Prejudice, I was pretty sure it wasn’t worth reading. And I’d have kept on thinking that had I not taken a class on Romantic and Victorian literature in college and read Sense and Sensibility with the least likely professor ever. We thought he looked like Clark Kent and his specialty was Shakespeare. If he thought Jane Austen was interesting and worth noting, I was willing to give her a second look. If teachers can suck the joy out of books even for book lovers like me, what bloody chance have the engineers got?

      I’m glad you can enjoy poetry with your kids, Michelle. You’re definitely doing something right.

  • I’ve been so enjoying your ongoing reflections on poetry.
    “…this moment in time, this breath, this place, this person, this thing. Here. Look. See.”
    made me breathe out Yes!

    I’ve just read Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook and it is wonderful. She writes of poetry being the purest crystallisation of our experience of being human, what it is to live, to suffer, to love and everything in between. Our articulated breath. She explores the ways poetry gives pleasure- a union of white heat/heart and thoughtful skill. She never goes near tying poems up in order to conduct vivisection on them, but instead enjoys the sound of them, the feel of them in the mouth, the look on the page. That they are a highly focused creative expression/force made me think of the liturgy of the Mass. Why is it that some people from very young ‘get’ the Mass- the words, the sound, the mystery, the power… ?

    Yes yes to a poetry-centred curriculum. I am now teaching in a community college. Many of my students had childhoods in which words and conversation, let alone books and poems featured little. I have designed a programme of courses with children’s literature as the unifying theme. I start with immersion in nursery rhymes. I love them and think they are powerful. They have rhythm, emotion, silliness, fabulous vocab, historical and regional associations, all the building blocks of poetry and learning but are accessible and fun. They can be memorised near effortlessly, especially if sung. They are utterances of relationship and wisdom. I’m hoping what is internalised with nursery rhymes is built on as the students explore picture books, stories and poetry. Some students are very negative. Sometimes I feel I am seducing them by stealth with lovely language and breathtaking illustrations. Beauty and reality (not to mention an education) by way of board books and doggerel.

    • I love the idea of recapitulating the early years literature, building literary knowledge from Mother Goose up through board books and picture books, the foundations of literary knowledge that underpin our ability to appreciate poetry and other literature. I think I became re-convinced of the necessity of Mother Goose when reading Brave New World, and Orwell’s in 1984, too for that matter. Huxley’s constant turning to nursery rhymes as touchpoints, his assumption of them as a common language. And how many readers today wouldn’t recognize them? I was sad myself when I didn’t recognize Oranges and Lemons said the bells of St Clements in 1984. How did I not know that one, I, who prided myself on my knowledge of nursery rhymes? And isn’t that partly what Orwell is getting at?

  • Oh I must reread Brave New World and 1984. I’d forgotten that -but maybe it has informed my attitude. Were’t they scarily prescient? And Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language.

    We used to play Oranges and Lemons and Ring a Rosie as games at children’s birthday parties and Brownies (Girl Scouts)- which sounds amazingly oldy worldy like something out of Lark Rise to Candleford.

    I do think nursery rhymes are touchpoints, a common language. If I say Hey diddle diddle, you think the cat and the fiddle. For me, part of the wonder of going to London was seeing London Bridge. How many people, the first time they see it, sing ‘London Bridge is falling down’ in their heads? It is small steps (both meanings!) to maybe whisper ‘Earth has not anything to show more fair’ as they walk over Westminster Bridge.