Recently I wrapped up a unit on poetry both for my ninth graders and tenth graders. I’m going to rag on them a bit (they know how much I love them–I often joke that sarcasm is my love language, so if I don’t sass you, we’re probably not too close). The reason is that I want to use their voices to reflect a greater societal value: Education is merely utilitarian. In other words, the “When am I ever going to USE this?” blasting like endless cannons nearly every day of the unit is indicative of a modern understanding of learning and personal development. If it doesn’t give me something resourceful (a greater skill, a greater experience for my resume, something tangible, etc.), it’s not valuable.
I think we pay lip service to the arts through our offering of art-related classes in our schools and communities, but they’re relegated to secondary or tertiary status rather than prominent, inter-disciplinary aspects of life.
I found myself explaining the importance of reading poetry as the ability to interpret difficult texts (meaning that isn’t always immediately clear) which will be useful as they continue their education. Don’t get me wrong, as an English teacher, I believe in the importance of developing the types of skills that will serve them well in college and careers: grammar, composition, communication of ideas, and everyday work-related reading. In fact, I think I once naively assumed teaching English would be me sitting in a circle with a copy of Shakespeare in hand and discussing the deep implications of Macbeth’s gloomy reflection: “Out, out, brief candle!” I now know I was wrong AND I’m okay with that (but I also get to do that from time to time as well which makes me so happy). However, poetry should never be (and arguably CAN never be) relegated to utilitarianism. It just doesn’t work.
Poetry is mystical.
It is hard to define the lifting up and setting down on a higher mountain that poetry blesses a person with or the soft, spring grass on the feet or the embrace like my great-grandma’s old afghan that hugs me with warmth, truth, and memory.
Poetry teaches (sometimes preaches), and poetry caresses. It holds our hands in loss, kicks us out of the house in apathy, and transforms narrow thinking.
Poetry is life wrapped up and handed to us on a page, often messy and corporeal.
I like how a literary resource page of Abilene Christian University eloquently describes literature (and poetry):
Literature is something that reflects society, makes us think about ourselves and our society, allows us to enjoy language and beauty, it can be didactic, and it reflects on the human condition. It both reflects ideology and changes ideology, just like it follows generic conventions as well as changing them.
But read what some famous poets have to say about poetry:
I wish our clever young poets would remember my homely definitions of prose and poetry; that is prose; words in their best order; – poetry; the best words in the best order.
Poetry is the journal of a sea animal living on land, wanting to fly in the air.
or one of my favorites
The poet is the priest of the invisible.
Poetry doesn’t make you a more capable person, it makes you a better person.
Poetry makes you more well-rounded, perceiving life both intellectually and viscerally. It puts you in touch with reality. It breeds compassion and understanding.
Poetry is still important.
What are some of you favorite poems? Add a link to them. Here are a few of my favorites you can start with (or revisit).
“Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night” by Dylan Thomas
“The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry
“Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou
“Caged Bird” by Maya Angelou
“The Poet” by Pablo Neruda
“Theme for English B” by Langston Hughes
“Death, be not proud” by Johne Donne
“God’s Grandeur” by Gerard Manley Hopkins
“Sailing to Byzantium” by William Butler Yeats
“The Story-Teller” by Mark Van Doren
“Invitation” by Shel Silverstein
“Song of the Open Road” by Walt Whitman
“of course I want to be successful but…” by Rupi Kaur