Teaching Poetry with Fidelity: “Does it matter?”

My take on Sandra Cisneros’s “Eleven” has always focused on the callousness of her math teacher and the subsequent marginalizing of Rachel, who represents for me all students and especially vulnerable students.

Due to both historical and recent (the accountability movement) pressures, teachers fail when they see their work as teaching content instead of teaching students.

Students as well as their love of literature and language and poetry are often sacrificed at the alter of the literary technique hunt so that they can answer questions correctly on a standardized test.

Thus we teach Langston Hughes’s “Harlem” to identify the metaphors and similes; we assign Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool” for a daring look at rhyme scheme.

What a bloody waste.

For those who teach, and teach poetry, and love poetry—and probably lose a piece of their soul each time they teach poetry—I recommend the brief poem “Forty-Seven Minutes” by Nick Flynn.

The beauty of the poem is that it sets up a classroom situation in which a student pushes back against the literary technique hunt with “Does it matter?

The persona of the poem is forced to conclude:

I smile—it is as if the universe balanced on those three words & we’ve landed in the unanswerable. I have to admit that no, it doesn’t, not really, matter, if rain is an image or rain is an idea or rain is a sound in our heads. But, I whisper, leaning in close, to get through the next forty-seven minutes we might have to pretend it does.

We must ask, then, when teaching poetry, what it is we are about.

Do we owe anything to our students, to our students’ love of language, literature, poetry? Do we owe anything to our fidelity to poetry itself?

If yes—and I think it is yes—it does not matter if we name the techniques; but otherwise, if poetry is simply one of many sacrifices to the standards and testing gods, then let us reduce all the beauty that is poetry to covering the curriculum, meeting the obligations of accountability.

And all else be damned.


6 thoughts on “Teaching Poetry with Fidelity: “Does it matter?””

  1. I guess that actually reading the poem aloud is out of favor, unless as a search for iambic pentameters.

    Anyway, if you want to shed more tears (many more) imagine the tragedy that is math teaching.

  2. I’m writing the poetry chapter for a new edition of Children’s Literature in the Reading Program in which I plead the case for letting poetry first be poetry before throwing a saddle on it to put it to work. I’m frequently reminded of former United States Poet Laureate Billy Collins’s poem, “Introduction to Poetry.” In it he writes that he tells readers to enjoy the poem, hold it to the light, listen to it, water ski across it. He laments that instead they insist on tying the poem to a chair and torturing a confession from it.

  3. Thanks for this. I have come to think that the important thing is for students to be interested in poetry because it is relevant. Making poetry and making it should be interactive. One learns much more from making than from reading. Billy Collins once warned against asking students s to write autobiographical poetry. It does produce a lot of bad poems. That is why models. Following that thinking I collected the on-line anthology In the Heydays of His Eye (www.heydays.ws) aimed a high school age. Robert O’Neil

  4. Yes, we do owe something to poetry: to lose our rigidity and come into the kingdom of the heart where poetry reigns freely. Poetry, though not without various standards or types, is fundamentally emotional and spiritual and is not the genre to be tightly controlled or tested. It’s nature is wildness. This is what intimidates many instructors, who may mean well but who are forced to stick to a rulebook, whereas poetry is always busting your expectations. But we owe it our vulnerability, yes, for that is where the best poetic substance comes from.

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