Modern Poetry and Teaching Poetry

Why don’t we value poetry? is a very good question, asked recently by Philip Henser at The Telegraph. He concludes,

The reason we don’t truly value poetry – the reason we don’t buy it and share it – is simply this. We’re not interested in the art form, only in the seriousness of what it happens to convey, like a magazine article, a newsflash, a tweet. And poetry has other things in mind.

He is correct, as far as it goes. Also, I would highly recommend reading the comments on his article. There is an excellent discussion going on there. For my part, I think the reason poetry is undervalued in today’s society is that it is not taught correctly in school.

At my excellent high school, we spent maybe a week on poetry each year in English class. We read a poem or two that the teacher believed to be a ‘good’ poem, we discussed it, and that was about it.

In ninth grade (14 years old), we had to choose a poem, memorize it and read it before the class. I was reamed out by the teacher, in front of the class, for not reading it correctly. She had never explained how to read poetry before that moment.

In tenth grade (15 years old), we discussed various forms of poetry, such as the sonnet, and meter and then were expected to write our own sonnet. Mine was a miserable failure, mainly because I didn’t understand the teacher’s explanation of meter and faked it as best I could. (Take it from me, trying to fake meter in a sonnet is worse than having no meter at all.)

It’s just been in the last couple years, reading on my own and really trying to understand how a good poem works, that I have come to understand meter, how to use it in a poem, and just as important, how to write it and make the rhythms work for my poems instead of against them. I am still learning and figuring this out, but I wish we had done this in school.

I think a lot of people don’t read poetry nowadays for two reasons. First, modern poetry is badly written. It is badly written because it is badly taught. Improve the teaching of poetry and you will improve its writing. Second, people don’t read something they don’t understand. If more people understood how poems work and why certain poems really get remembered, then they would read more poetry.

How I would teach poetry:

  • Start by reading lots of poetry. The teacher would read it aloud, the students would read along, until the students had heard enough to hear how it should be done, then they could read aloud, also.
  • Study the poetry. Study not just the actions in the poetry and the motives of the poet, but study how the words and rhythms fit together to convey the poet’s meaning.
  • Write. But don’t expect students to turn out perfect sonnets after a week of study. Take time with this. Start by having students write single lines in a given meter. Then start stringing them together.
  • Discuss how the meter of a line affects its meaning and feel.
  • Talk about lots of poetic forms, and why a poet might choose one form over another.
  • Read The Poetry Handbook, by Mary Oliver.

School used to be about a lot of memorizing of famous poems and excerpts from longer works. I don’t think we should return to that, but that style of teaching has one advantage. Students are exposed to so much good writing, and good poems, and made to memorize it, that they begin to write that way automatically. Teaching good writing breeds more good writing. That is what we need to remember.

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3 Comments

  1. Poetry Writing as Pretention | Lizbeth's Garden
  2. I was waiting for this | Lizbeth's Garden
  3. How do you know good poetry? | Lizbeth's Garden

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