The Things Schools Ruin: Poetry Edition

When I posted two of my favorite lines of poetry to highlight our human failures, I received a poetic reply:

While this poetry exchange remains anchored to the dead-white-man problem with the canon many of us have experienced in formal schooling, I think it also speaks to, when allowed, that poetry is a genuinely powerful and relevant human form of expression that is more often than not harmed by traditional teaching.

National Poetry Month, April 2020, falls in the midst of a world-wide pandemic that has disrupted almost all formal schooling across the U.S. and much of the world, but social media suggests that poetry not only persists, it thrives.

Poet Tara Skurtu, for example, launched the International Poetry Circle through her Twitter account, and the response from poets video recording poetry readings has accelerated beyond her capacity to manage them.

When given the opportunity, poetry is its own best teacher, and when readers are allowed, poetry matters.

Even though I came to recognize my own calling and journey as a poet during my first year of college, I was during that same period having a terrible experience with Emily Dickinson, who I loathed because of formal schooling but came to love many years later as a teacher while exploring her life and work on my own.

By my junior year of college, I had made the transition from considering a major in physics or architecture to committing to English education. It was a hard and long journey for me to find my life in words because schooling was often in my way.

I entered teaching high school English determined to teach well, but also determined to open the door to literature and writing for my students in ways that weren’t often allowed for me (except for the occasional teacher who was working against the traditions of schooling).

The two seemingly endless challenges I faced, however, were that my own early efforts at teaching well proved to be as counter-productive to fostering a love of reading and writing as so-called traditional methods and that students hated, for example, writing and poetry so deeply because of their experiences over nine or ten years I was facing the most uphill of uphill battles.

I taught Albert Camus’s “The Myth of Sisyphus” for many years in conjunction with his The Stranger; I also had a poster of Sisyphus hanging on my classroom wall.

Like Sisyphus I taught poetry each year with good intentions and great care, only to have the students remain stoically anti-poetry.

Teaching poetry was my rock, but I was not happy.

Then on Twitter this morning, I was reminded of when my teaching poetry turned a corner:

Eventually, I shifted my entire poetry unit, spanning a quarter of the academic year, to a series of lessons grounded in the lyrics and music of the Athens, Georgia based alternative band R.E.M. And I discovered that my students were drawn to the poetry of James Dickey, who at the time taught at the University of South Carolina.

James Dickey (cropped).jpg
Public Domain

In the late 1980s, our high school was destroyed by arson, and once the school was rebuilt, we made a large print of Dickey’s “For the Last Wolverine,” had Dickey sign it, and hung it prominently in the entrance of our new library.

Dickey himself was from Georgia, and I think students found his rural poetry set in nature and dealing with animals concrete and accessible. He was very readable and students tended to feel a sense of comfort with their understanding of these poems.

Although Dickey, like many white men of the twentieth century, poses problems as a flawed man, I will always have a warm place in my teacher heart for how my students embraced these poems; we had many good days reading and discussing these poems by Dickey (along with “Deer among Cattle” and “For the Last Wolverine”):

There is a complicated paradox to formal schooling since the structure is an ideal way to bring young people into the beauty and wonder of language, but the demands of mass education for structured outcomes tend to ruin those experiences with beauty and wonder.

Poetry worked with my students when we allowed ourselves to experience poetry for poetry’s sake, when we set aside the insidious urge to analyze and reduce any poem to a neat theme.

And despite having similar problems as the dead-white-man tradition of schooling, social media shows us that poetry links us, poetry can stabilize and soothe us when the world is too much with us.

If and when we return to some brave new world on the other side of the Covid-19 pandemic, something we will then call “normal,” I hope those of us who are charged with teaching language and poetry will be able to hold onto the beauty and wonder of poetry in ways that guide us as we invite students to join in.

No literary technique hunt. No multiple-choice questions.

I think that when I read Dickey’s poems aloud—”I wave, like a man catching fire”—just as when I read Faulkner aloud, there was something about my deeply Southern voice and Dickey’s very Southern poetry that resonated with my Southern students.

Poetry as us, us as poetry.

I miss those days, and regret it took me several years to allow those times that now sit in my heart fondly.