Poetry 101

I think I’ve decided to work with poetry with my juniors and seniors for the next week or so.

I was toying with the idea of heading right into debate and persuasion, but I’m not quite confident that I’m ready to start that unit just yet. I’ve ordered a handbook with the traditional rules for debate from Amazon, and the book’s not here yet; I’d like to be a bit more familiar with the conventions of logical and reasoned argumentation than I am at the moment. I want to read A Christmas Carol with both of my classes (and to watch a couple of versions of the story on film), but I’d like for that unit to culminate just before the holiday break, so I’m holding back on that for now. When I put a bunch of ideas up for a vote on the class website, several of the kids expressed an interest in poetry, so I guess that’s where we’ll go next.

The thing is, I’m not a huge fan of poetry. I mean, of course, there are poems that I adore – deeply and abidingly and, well, truly adore – but in general, I’m not a huge fan of the genre as a whole. For the most part, I find that my frustration with poetry stems from the idea that it’s all so meaningful and profound when, most of the time, I find it overwrought and dramatic (put the back of your hand to your forehead here, and sigh deeply).

I suppose this resistance to the genre comes from far too many college classes with far too many self-proclaimed poets who went about moon-eyed for the tragic figures in our anthologies. While I appreciate that a lot of great poetry can come from suffering, I’m not sure I buy into the whole poet-as-martyr image, and I KNOW I don’t buy into the whole culture of the poetry lover, at least as it’s represented on my campus.

The kids want to look at some poetry, though, and I’m willing to take another turn on that merry-go-round, so away we go.

I’m going to experiment with the unit, though; I want the kids to do some SERIOUS thinking about this, and not just nod knowingly while I try to explicate a particular piece. I’ve dug every single poetry book out of my library which, surprisingly, totaled 19 volumes ranging from an anthology of Frost poems to work from children in concentration camps in World War II to Maya Angelou to a blogging friend of mine.

For someone who “doesn’t like” poetry, I’ve got quite a range of resources, don’t I?

My plan is to hike all these books up the 85 steps to the school, spread them out on a table, and instruct my students to choose a book or two to peruse.  At first, they’re just going to read – as much and through as many of the varied books as they can.  When they come across something that intrigues or inspires or frustrates or delights them, they are to have a closer look. Their job will then be to present these pieces to the class, and to lead us in discussion, investigation, and appreciation for the poems they’ve chosen.

I’m going to see if I can tie this in to the Poetry Out Loud program that CHS participates in every year, but I’m not going to demand that the students participate; I suspect at least a couple of them will really want to, though, and I will certainly use that as their demonstration of mastery as a final project.  For those who are not inclined to compete, I will work with them to come up with some creative way of proving to me that they “get” poetry (which will really be their way of demonstrating that they understand that poetry is entirely subjective, that poems can take on many different forms and styles, and that one of the essential features of the genre is that the piece says more than the word on the page).

My biggest challenge is going to be not rolling my eyes when one of my self-proclaimed poets pulls out a piece that I find overwrought and dramatic.  I just need to keep remembering: to each his own, Chili; to each his own…

(in case you were wondering, some of my favorite poems are this one, this one (which I can (and will) recite from memory), this one (which may be my all-time, most favorite, ever), and a new favorite, this one)



Filed under analysis, book geek, critical thinking, great writing, I love my job, Learning, lesson planning, Poetry, Questions, reading, self-analysis, Teaching, the good ones, winging it

5 responses to “Poetry 101

  1. I’m also not much of a poetry fanatic myself, but I did wind up discovering my favorite poem in one of my high school classes (Spanish literature, in my case). “Romance Sonambulo” by Federico Garcia Lorca. The words just seem like velvet. Not really the same when translated into English, but I suppose that’s probably true of poetry in any foreign language.

  2. I love poetry but don’t get to read it enough. One of the things I’ve found very instrumental in class is not just discussing the poem, but discussing whether or not we think it is a *good* poem. Of course the answers vary widely but the discussion of what makes a good poem has been very informative for me and my students. We were even able to agree that even if we don’t *like* a particular poem, we can admire how the poem was written. I think that was an eye-opener for many of them.

    Do you like Billy Collins? I’ve found that the poems he chose for Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry were a fantastic mixture of styles, themes, and complexity. Your students might like them.

  3. Darci

    Love the Billy Collins book listed above. I am also a strong advocate of the Poetry Slam concept. Not all poetry must be a sonnet or a tragedy. Sometimes we are just being Dr Seuss.

    Enjoy the process.

  4. I really enjoyed “I Said to Poetry”. Thanks!

  5. “I’m not sure I buy into the whole poet-as-martyr image, and I KNOW I don’t buy into the whole culture of the poetry lover, at least as it’s represented on my campus.” I don’t know where this comes from but it makes me really angry that it came from somewhere and shaped the lens through which you see poetry. Read more T.S. Eliot, some Swinburne, the aforementioned Billy Collins. Hell, Maya Angelou is all about poetry as JOY! Poetry tells the same stories prose does, the images are just more concentrated, the colors perhaps a little more jewel-toned because of their focus. Shakespeare, he ran the gamut and he fucking bled poetry.

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