Monday, November 15, 2010

On teaching poetry

If you're looking for some profound musing on craft to pass out to your graduate students, this ain't it.

If you're looking for one man's subjective account of teaching poetry to high school students in a public school, you've come to the right spot.

Let me start with a rhetorical question, because we all know how well rhetorical questions work at the beginning of a piece of writing: Why is it that two weeks into any poetry unit I teach I suddenly want to strangle myself with my own tongue?

First of all, I'm a poet. Scratch that. I write poetry but cringe whenever someone uses the label "poet" to describe their self. There's something so very, very pretentious about it. As if to say: Despite the fact that I practice a craft that has far more practitioners than readers, I still manage to maintain an air of self-importance that can't be penetrated by a diamond cutter.

Anyhow, my last three books have, indeed, been collections of poetry, so when the poetry unit comes rolling around each year, it's not something I'm entirely ill-prepared to teach.

In fact, each time I start a poetry unit, I begin it with an entirely misguided and delusional sense of optimism. I think, This is it. This time I'm going to hook 'em. This time I have all of these great new poems by all of these great young poets in my arsenal, and dammit, these kids are going to learn to love poetry. To hell with those dead white men and suicidal white chicks; this stuff is new and fresh and vital and in touch with these kids' worlds.


I'm actually starting to accept the fact that the vast majority of people in this world---aside from, apparently, the Chileans---could care less about poetry. Regardless of what I do as a writing or literature teacher, every time I put a poem in front of a student, they're going to look up at me like I've placed a turd on their desk.

Listen, I'm not saying that poetry isn't important. I believe it is fresh and vital and contains the potential to reach people in ways that no other art form can. However, this does not change the fact that few people read it, and even fewer care to learn how.

Does this mean we should stop teaching poetry in public schools (you should end with a rhetorical question, as well)? No. Not at all. Like we do when we write our poems, we need to forge ahead and lower our shoulders against everything that seems logical and impossible. While, for most people, the turd will likely never turn into a vibrant pulsing slice of someone's life and experiences and observations, a sneak peek into the mind of a true and vital seeker, it does matter.

Strange yet exuberant, the poems do matter. And that, my friends, is called "movement."


Steve said...

Nate -- I tried to teach a bunch of hip small press and comtemporary stuff to my honors seniors last year -- I was thinking these kids with their oddly unnatural pretension that school can sometimes matter might just buy into it. I thought it would be all about experiencing the poems, getting away from literary terminology, all that English-class bullshit that keeps people from connecting with poems -- and makes them think poetry only comes from old dead guys . . . their response? In May, after they took the AP Lit and Comp test, they were mad that I didn't teach more poetry lit terms . . . because it affected their test scores . . . .

Ian M. Ward said...

If it means anything, I know you helped myself and at least Jake Parris love poetry more. At the same time, I am currently both super joyous/scared shitless about teaching a poetry unit 4th quarter. Am I allowed to say "kids these days?" Too soon?

Nebula said...

Nate, you are a brave, brave man! I couldn't bring myself to teach precisely because I love it so much. I couldn't bear to see others depreciate what I loved. On the other hand, where does this weird attitude toward poetry come from? If you say you're a writer, people think it's cool, if you say you're a poet, they get this strange, embarrassed look on their faces--maybe this is the reaction you mention. But why? I somehow bypassed all this weird prejudice/fear/shame about poetry.

Nate Graziano said...

Oh God, Steve. Grade-grubbers are the worst. It's almost easier to tolerate apathetic students.

Ian, you can use the term after you've been told by a student to fuck off. It has nothing to do with experience. That's the demarcation.

And I'm not sure why there's a prejudice against poets. Although maybe it's not prejudice, per se, rather a mixture of bafflement and pity, as if it say, "Why would you spend your time doing such a strange thing?"

JR's Thumbprints said...

Hell, I can't even get my convict-students to write a cookie-cutter-essay for the GED, can't even break out the 24-count box of crayons and let them have at it. Hey Nate, I know it's not poetry, but I did enjoy "Hot Dog Night at County Jail." Now there's something that I can relate to.

Nate Graziano said...

Thanks, man. A lot of my students could use a couple of months in county jail, or better yet, prison to give them this message: You know how little you care about poetry, kids? Well, the real world gives less of a shit about you.