Have you ever told a room full of high school students that they are going to spend the next few weeks studying poetry? If you have you were probably faced with looks ranging from abject terror (“but poetry is HARD”) to looks of resigned boredom (“but poetry is BORING”). The thing is, poetry as a format is neither hard nor boring. Poetry, I maintain, can be fun, exciting and incredibly informative and entertaining.
That said, there are of course poems and poets that make me want to gouge out my eyes (please don’t make me read Dickinson or Arnold, I beg of you). But I have the same reaction to some authors or books. The wholesale dismissal of a format because someone has been subjected to poetry they did not enjoy makes me want to beat people with a two by four. It particularly upsets me because poetry is so easy to give people a wide variety of poems. You can easily cover everything from sonnets, to epics, to haikus, to humour, to U2 lyrics in just a few weeks of classes. I know I did. And if you aren’t a teacher, you can easily read a poem a day, it can take less than five minutes but really brighten your day. I mean who does not smile at this:
The day he moved out was terrible -
That evening she went through hell.
His absence wasn't a problem
But the corkscrew had gone as well.
Four lines, but they never fail to put a smile on my lips.
My students were incredibly surprised that they were not only allowed to discuss song lyrics but that they could be considered poetry. That they could compare today’s “sappy love songs” with Shakespeare. That The Beatles “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds” with Coleridge “Kubla Khan” (both were “trippy”). All of a sudden I had a room full of scientists discussing the differences between complex poems. After the unit was over they all agreed that poetry wasn’t as hard as they had thought.
For me poetry is great because it says so much in so few words. It can be hard to get busy students to read full length novels, especially when they are not humanities majors (here students start specialising in high school) but telling them to read three poems for homework didn’t seem like such a difficult concept. That felt doable for them, and for me it means that I can cover a lot of literary terms and concepts quite easy. Plus I love poetry!
Like with everything poetry is only hard if you go in to it thinking it is going to be hard/difficult/boring!
I am going to leave you with a poem that I will always have my seniors read:
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you
But make allowance for their doubting too,
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream–and not make dreams your master,
If you can think–and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ‘em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it all on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings–nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much,
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And–which is more–you’ll be a Man, my son!