As a middle and high schooler, I felt that poetry was something akin to a doily: a frilly, ornamental, and somewhat useless thing that was cool for people who were into that kind of thing (aka, not me). Whenever a teacher said it was time for poetry, I sighed internally, held my nose, and got through it as quickly as possible.
As an English major in college I had to take a poetry class, and at first my mindset and experience was similar to middle and high school, but then one day the professor brought in a poem called “Root” by a Hungarian poet named Miklos Radnoti (full text at the bottom). Radnoti, who was of Jewish heritage, wrote the poem while on a forced death march towards the end of World War II–a march that would ultimately take his life. The poem “Root” was one of a number of poems that were found on his body after the war and published posthumously.
It has been nearly 20 years since that class, and I remember nothing else about it, but “Root” remains seared into my consciousness. There was something so amazing about Radnoti’s imagery, the raw emotion, and the fact that it went into the ground with him and then came out again to tell his story. I’d read hundreds of poems before, but that latched onto my soul and like the raven it still is sitting there today.
This moment with “Root” was when I realized what poetry really is. Far from a needlessly frilly doily, poetry is humanity reduced into its essence. It is experiences, emotions, ideas, and language compressed into little bite-sized pieces, which makes it, when wielded well, an incredibly powerful tool in the writing classroom. It took me a while to figure out how to use it right (next week’s post is on how I win over the poetry skeptics in my classes), but today I use poetry daily in my writing classes and in a myriad of ways; I simply can’t imagine my classes without it. Here are five of the most impactful ways that using poetry helps me to be a better writing teacher:
Poetry Invites Students Into the Classroom
In Teaching for Joy and Justice, Linda Christensen writes, “Students who struggle in other areas of literacy education often succeed in poetry…Poetry unleashes their verbal dexterity–its break dancing for the tongue” (15). In this, like most things, Christensen is right on. We have many students who have long and troubled histories with writing. Many of these students are terrified of essays and narratives, and yet when asked to write a poem, they will scribble something amazing in a manner of minutes. There is something about poetry’s elevation of voice over a list of rules (see Christensen’s breakdancing metaphor) that often makes it particularly appealing to those students who have struggled the most with more formal styles of writing, and with those students poetry can play a key role in inviting them into the broader work of the class.
Just last month I had what I call a “silent slam” in my classroom (silent slams are where we have a poetry slam, but because most students are nervous about reading their words in front of peers, we have a panel of student readers who rehearse and deliver the poems anonymously for their classmates), and the two winners, as determined by the class, were both students who told me near the start of the year that they were not writers and who had struggled to get work in for much of the semester. Being elevated as winners by their peers marked positive turning points for both students, and neither has significantly disengaged for the class or a piece of writing since.
Poetry Builds Community
I’ve written before about how I start each year with the students writing letters and narratives, so that I can quickly get to know who they are, what they like and value, and the obstacles they are facing. This information is crucial because it informs my ability to build classroom community and connection to students in genuine ways, which are the keystones that make writing classes work.
And no tool is more powerful for getting to know students, building connections to students, and establishing an overall strong classroom community than poetry. In the walls of a poem, the normal rules for what you do and don’t share are often put away. Students tend to be honest about who they are, what matters, and what they are facing. This tendency towards the personal helps us as teachers get to know them in the condensed way that only poetry can offer. Further, for students the experience of exploring their struggles, background, and ideas can be a deeply meaningful one and sharing that poetry with the class while hearing their classmates’ poetry can build classroom cohesion in a way that little else can.
One of my favorite poem prompts for community building is to take Iranian-American poet Tarfia Faizullah’s (see right) “Self Portrait as a Slinky,” and use it as a model for students to write poems called “Self Portrait as a ________,” where they choose an object to represent them. Other prompts I sometimes use include a poem called “For My People” based on the Margaret Walker poem “For My People” (also a Linda Christensen prompt) or “Still I ______” where students mimic the structure and approach of Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise“
Poetry Teaches Literary/Rhetorical Devices Better Than Anything Else
I have taught language arts to every grade 6-12, and all of the revolve around a relatively small stable of terms and techniques: metaphors, similes, symbolism, parallel structure, alliteration, etc.. I have approached these topics from a number of directions, but I have found no teaching tool for any grade to be as regularly effective as poetry for getting students to really, truly understand these devices. The self-portrait assignment above is a good one for teaching metaphor and having students do a take on Langston Hughes’ “Daybreak in Alabama” (Daybreak in _________) is a beautiful one for teaching the power of purposeful repetition and parallel structure.
That poetry would be really effective for teaching these terms and techniques makes sense too. When it comes to learning a new art, observation of others only goes so far. Eventually, we need to roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty, and poetry offers a quick way to do that (also, as an added plus, it offers a medium that is easy to give feedback to quickly too).
Poetry Inspires Deep Critical Thinking
Just last week Moving Writers’ newest writer, Brett Vogelsinger, wrote a post called Poetry as Prewrite. The gist of it was that poetry can be a really amazing form of prewriting for genres not associated with poetry like essays or research papers because according to Vogelsinger, “a poetry quickwrite in the writer’s notebook can be the perfect tool to zero in on a main point, sharpen diction, prepare for revising a longer piece, or practice a key skill that helps students edit more carefully.”
Until the post I’d never thought of using poetry to prewrite for larger analytical/research pieces, but I tried it last week before the students revised their final papers, and the results thus far have been really promising, with the papers submitted having noticeably more thoughtfully worded passages and unique/engaging approaches than usual. The idea of poetry as prewrite is definitely something I will be doing again.
Poetry Focuses Students on Words and Creativity
I have written before about how word choice and creativity both need more attention in our language arts classes. These two factors tend to be what differentiate ok or good writing from great writing, and yet as writing teachers we rarely mention or work on them directly. No genre is better for training students to think about and utilize both their word choices and creativity than poetry.
My viewpoint of poetry as a frilly, less important genre when I was a student was no accident. Dismissing the importance of poetry is far too common; it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that it is the most common understanding of poetry in this country. My poetry unit is the only one where I inevitably get some moments of pushback where students and/or parents question why we spend so much time on it in comparison to more “academic” topics that could be covered. As language arts teachers, I think we also, consciously or unconsciously, take similar viewpoints and minimize its role in comparison to other genres and methods of response. But when we do that, we give up one of our best tools for building all sorts of things–ranging from student voice and skills to class community and student identity–and to paraphrase Romeo in potentially that most famous piece of poetry, “in that we make huge waste.”
Yours in teaching,
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by Miklos Radnoti
Power scampers through root,
which drinks rain,
eats the earth,
and dreams its snow-white dream. Through earth thrusting above earth,
climbing, and clever root is,
its arms as strong as ropes.
Vermin sleep along root’s arms,
vermin squat upon root’s foot,
vermin infest the world.
Yet root endures down below,
gives no damn for the world,
only the flowering branch.
Which it admires, nourishing,
sending it good flavors,
the sweet, heavenly tastes.
I’m root now myself,
lodged amongst vermin,
where this poem’s been made.
Blossom I was, become root,
the dark earth weighs on me,
and my fate has been fixed,
the saw sobs over my head.
Lager Heidenau above Zagubica, in the mountains, August 8, 1944 Translated from the Hungarian by Jascha Kessler