THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Poetry in American High Schools

"Poetry is dead," one of my students informed me from the back row of the classroom. These are not words that a high school English teacher likes to hear.

Trying to regain control of my class, I loudly replied with a verse that I was once forced to memorize in high school, "Do not go gentle into that good night...Rage, rage against the dying of the light." Although I no longer recall the theorems of geometry or the order of U.S. presidents, this Dylan Thomas poem remains alive in my head. It has since become our class anthem as I try to resuscitate poetry for my students.

But I silently feared that my student's remark had some merit. After all, we live in world where high schoolers can spout off the names of all three Jonas Brothers, but can't name three poets; and can memorize the lyrics to every Miley Cyrus song, but can't recite a single Shakespearean sonnet.

The poets of old promised their kings and lovers immortality in written verse. After castles crumbled and hair grew gray, only poetry could preserve power and beauty. But if today's students refuse to read such poems, the pledge proves empty.

I desperately sought ways to foster a passion for poetry in my skeptical students. I compared promiscuous poets like Lord Byron and Walt Whitman to modern rock stars, and encouraged my students to use poems as pickup lines at dances. When a student's phone rang during my class, I made the student reply to the text message in a rhyming couplet before giving him detention.

My most outlandish teaching technique involved creating a website called "Poetry TV" where students could watch or submit "poetry videos," audio-visual accompaniments to their favorite poems. If MTV music videos helped to popularize mediocre singers of the '80s, I hoped that "poetry videos" on PTV could do the same for the great bards of the 1800s. The online videos captured some of the drama, imagery, and allusions of the poems, making them more accessible to my students. Some even uploaded their own poetic interpretations to YouTube for a few points of extra credit.

I soon discovered a number of other online initiatives that seek to popularize poetry far beyond the classroom. The days of poets scribbling their thoughts with quill pens are over. Today's young poets post their verse on the web, where they can instantly receive feedback from fellow romantic poets in Argentina. While poetry once spread through cultures primarily through word of mouth, it now finds a far faster vehicle in chain emails. When my father could recall only a few lines of some poem he memorized in high school, he simply typed in the phrase "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" and found the full sonnet in less than a second. He was finally able to impress my mother with the rest of it during a Thanksgiving toast.

Although my father stumbled through his recitation, more than 300,000 high school students now brilliantly deliver poems for a nationwide competition called "Poetry Out Loud." Launched in 2006 and following in the footsteps of the National Spelling Bee, Poetry Out Loud empowers students to learn and build confidence through academic competition. Participants memorize and recite poems before a panel of judges who elect one person from each state to receive an all-expense paid trip to the finals in Washington D.C. The schools they attend receive a $500 stipend for the purchase of poetry books. Last year, Kaleena Rose Kovach from Palmer High School in Colorado Springs won the state title and was a finalist in D.C. "The poems become a part of who you are and I am excited to do it again," Kovach told me. She hopes to compete again this year for the $20,000 cash prize awarded to the champion.

Such bold and well-funded initiatives restore my faith that the plug has not yet been pulled on poetry. As the holidays approach, I hope that we can rekindle a passion for poems. Instead of buying a trite Hallmark card, write a poem to someone you love, send a text message in iambic pentameter, or even memorize a poem for Poetry Out Loud. Let's not let poetry "go gentle into that good night."

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