Why teach poetry?

Wednesday, September 9, 2020 - 4:27pm


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I’m sure most of us have sat through a high school English class on poetry, watching as our teachers droned on and on about meter, metaphor and metonymy, and wondered: Why? Why do we need to know about this? What wisdom were our teachers secretly imparting as they confidently strode around the room insisting on the sheer importance of knowing how to identify a rhyme scheme? Would we one day be required to send our bosses a memo in iambic pentameter, or might we need to quote Homer on our mortgage applications?

Let’s just say the jury’s still out.

As an English teacher-in-training, this is, in part, an effort to answer for myself: “Why teach poetry?” One might start by asking what exactly teachers are teaching when they give a poetry lesson. Skimming through the Common Core State Standards for English, the most informative guideline for teachers on poetry is that students should “analyze multiple interpretations of a story, drama, or poem (e.g., recorded or live production of a play or recorded novel or poetry), evaluating how each version interprets the source text.” With this guidance, it’s no surprise that the poetry unit is usually the most nebulous part of an English class. Anecdotally, teachers I’ve spoken with or have studied with have had varying conceptions of what “teaching poetry” is, ranging from memorization of technical terms, to poetry as a method of self-expression, to poetry as a tool for engaging in socio-political issues and everything in between. These are all potentially useful skills, but they seem more like after-the-fact justifications for keeping poetry in the curriculum, rather than practices that follow from a pre-existing understanding of why it’s important for students to read poetry.

Another approach we can take to decide why exactly poetry is important is to go from the general to the specific. So, what is poetry? A rough, inclusive definition is that it’s the creative use of language that differs in some way from prose. If we go much more specific, we run the risk of excluding significant chunks of important work, which points to the incredible variety the label “poetry” stands for. Everything from the Iliad to haikus posted on Instagram fall under its tent. This might also be something that contributes to the difficulty of teaching poetry. Shakespeare’s reasons for writing are far different from T.S. Eliot’s, which are different from Audre Lorde’s, and so on and so forth. How can one have a clear idea of why it’s important for a 16-year-old to engage with poetry if the motivations of poets themselves vary so widely? 

The “fuzziness” of poetry poses a problem for those who are just starting to study it. It may be useful to ask if there are successful models for learning poetry outside of the K-12 setting. An obvious place to look is the university. A college poetry course no doubt looks different than the standard high school English class. The most notable difference is that college literature courses tend to be more discussion-based. Professors won’t spend much time in front of the class lecturing and will instead passively guide students’ informal conversations on the readings. Essays are the primary form of assessment, allowing for greater flexibility in demonstrating mastery of the course material. Students normally don’t have a well-defined sequence of concepts that they’re meant to learn the way they would in a math class, leading to more organic, open-ended discussions. This structure works because it accounts for the aforementioned “fuzziness” of literature and poetry especially. Instead of coming up with a comprehensive list of concepts that one should know to understand poetry, the university model is iterative. It asks students to repeatedly expose themselves to a wide variety of literature so that they begin recognizing patterns within and between different works, authors, eras, theories, etc., building an understanding of literature with a level of nuance that can’t be captured in a Common Core Standards list. 

Of course, students in a college literature course are self-selected for their interest in the subject, and are therefore more likely to be willing to engage in productive discussions. But K-12 students aren’t particularly engaged with the present way poetry is taught, so it’s hard to justify not moving towards a more “fuzzy” method of teaching poetry. So what’s standing in the way of that? Most English teachers would agree, in principle, that a curriculum consisting of a clear list of standards would inevitably be incomplete and that an iterative, discussion-heavy class is the ideal way to teach literature. Still, there’s an apparent reluctance to actually put these ideas into practice. 

It’s hard to point to a single reason why this is the case. Discussions in class sizes of 30 or more students are challenging to facilitate, which usually results in students having few opportunities to contribute. Standardized testing puts pressure on educators to “teach to the test,” and prioritize rote skills at the expense of a richer, iterative model that doesn’t explicitly set out to teach a specific set of skills. Teachers are often overworked, so it might be a challenge to design creative lessons that account for the specific needs of their students.

The common thread here is that the inadequacies of our usual ways of teaching poetry and literature more broadly stem from the structural limitations of our education system. 

A commonly discussed topic in education circles is the factory model of education. The factory model is a capitalist conception of education that seeks to maximize efficiency by treating the school as a sort of assembly line. Every teacher has a predetermined set of information to impart onto students, there are clearly defined standards for students to meet, students are expected to follow a strict schedule and are constantly taking directions from a supervisor. The factory model reduces the teacher’s role to merely an administrator with little room for flexibility. In this environment, there is no vocabulary to talk about “fuzzy” topics like literature. There is no room for something that doesn’t have direct utility to some other end. A model like this works when the primary motive is profit, but allocating resources in education is far more complicated than a calculation of how many students you can put through the system at the lowest cost. 

These are the forces at play when teachers make decisions on what and how to teach. The seeming directionlessness of poetry lessons comes from a tension between poetry’s “fuzziness” and the definitive qualities that the factory model necessitates. In light of this, we are prompted to reframe the question “Why teach poetry?” Poetry, like all art, is in some sense a spiritual — as opposed to material — practice; that is, one rarely paints, plays music or writes for a purely practical reason. To some extent, art is done for its own sake, so asking why to teach poetry is like asking why to teach music or painting. It’s just something humans do. Unfortunately, that doesn’t square with the way the education system is structured; there is no way to engage with “fuzzy” topics without the imperatives of capitalism pushing in the other direction.