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John Lundberg

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Are We Teaching Poetry The Right Way?

Posted: 01/10/10 11:29 AM ET

Former British poet laureate Andrew Motion ruffled some feathers last week when he complained to the press about how educators teach poetry. He took issue, specifically, with official guidance from the UK's National Literacy Trust, which recommended that schools celebrate the lyrics of Snoop Dogg alongside Shakespeare, and put together a "poetry" competition centered on the "worst/best football chants ever," claiming that the group went too far in an effort to make poetry more interesting to students.

It's easy to see the logic behind the Trust's strategy. If you ask an American teenager to name his favorite poet--I know this from experience--he's likely to name a rapper or a pop star. And a teen is far more likely to love Maya Angelou's limited verse than a Robert Frost or Langston Hughes. But Motion is right that artists like Eminem, and even Angelou, only scratch the surface of poetry's power. As he put it, "If we give our students only one kind of poetry to read, a kind they immediately recognise, it would be like taking someone to a palace, parking them at the door, and telling them to go no further ..."

The trick, I believe, is recognizing your students' limited exposure to poetry as an entry point, and then helping them move forward. That doesn't mean leading your class right into Eliot's Wasteland (as one of my high school teachers, unfortunately, did). There's a middle ground. The deliciously dark but complex poetry of Edgar Allen Poe is, for many, the poetic equivalent of a gateway drug. And Motion recommends Ted Hughes' animal poems, which have a visceral quality, and other accessible but expertly crafted poems like Emily Dickinson's "The Snow":

It sifts from leaden sieves,
It powders all the wood,
It fills with alabaster wool
The wrinkles of the road.

It makes an even face
Of mountain and of plain, --
Unbroken forehead from the east
Unto the east again.

It reaches to the fence,
It wraps it, rail by rail,
Till it is lost in fleeces;
It flings a crystal veil

On stump and stack and stem, --
The summer's empty room,
Acres of seams where harvests were,
Recordless, but for them.

It ruffles wrists of posts,
As ankles of a queen, --
Then stills its artisans like ghosts,
Denying they have been.

Motion also stressed the need to revive reading aloud, citing Frost's line that "The ear is the best reader." Why? Students need to understand that a poem's identity isn't just found in what's on the page--imagery, symbolism and metaphor, etc.--it's tied to how a poem's music (rhythm and rhyme, assonance and alliteration) has infused its words with power.

Of course, the most important factor in effective teaching is having effective teachers. Motion made a rather blunt and unflattering assessment of Britain's teachers that I fear is often true here in the states as well:

"At the moment, our teacher-training programmes are producing people who are simply not equipped to teach it. Worse than that, I'd say we are producing a lot of teachers who remember being anxious around the reading and writing of poetry when they were children themselves, and who are therefore very likely to end up communicating that anxiety, rather than anything else."

We obviously need our poetry teachers to be comfortable with poetry. We need teachers who are able to guide students into Motion's "palace" and reshape their understanding of the art. It's no easy job--it's a long, hard road from Diddy to a Dylan Thomas villanelle (especially when some of your students don't want to walk). Thankfully, these teachers exist and are, not surprisingly, teaching one another at places like the Teaching Resource Center at the Academy of American Poets website. They're solving the problems Motion grumbles about in threads like this one, helping each other to find quality, accessible poems, and sharing teaching strategies. It's exciting to see. And thankfully, they seem to understand that if you're going to try teaching "The Wasteland" to high schoolers, you'd better have a damn good strategy.