As foretold in last night’s post, I started teaching my students about poetry today. And as I expected, I began to wax a little, shall we say, poetic about the power of poetry. I told them about the super exclusive poetry club I wish I could gain entrance to as a fiction writer, an essayist, a blogger, a club that sips cocktails made of line breaks, snacks on appetizers of bacon-wrapped sestinas, that votes on bylaws written in iambic pentameter.
Yeah. I’m still riding it out. Indulge me.
I let the students detox, asked them to hit me with their most honest, most wounded, most curriculum-based, teach-to-the-test damage from poetry units past. Students told me they hated poetry, they were flatly indifferent to it, and that they loved it. Students confessed that poetry is deep, and thoughtful, that poets are, in their estimation, pensive outcasts concerned with words and ideas. They called poetry confusing. Some groaned to me privately on their way out of the classroom at the end of class: poetry…. ugh.
We started today with a basic pep talk about poetry. I warned them not to default immediately to trying to find “deeper meaning.” As Frued said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And sometimes, water is just water. The poet isn’t trying to say we are the water, or the world is water, or we are fish in a watery abyss of watery thinness, shallow ideas or deep ones, plenty of fish in the sea, wise old sea turtles, anem-anem-anemones. Sometimes, it’s just water. Sometimes, it matters and sometimes, it doesn’t.
But nothing is wasted. Each poem is a Super Bowl commercial; millions of dollars go into each second of that short ad spot. Not one second of it is wasted. And so it is with poetry.
I am offering extra credit to students who wish to memorize a poem and recite it to the class. It must be at least ten lines long, and for the first time, I had students ask, “Can it be one I wrote?”
I don’t want to oversell my excitement, but, “HELL YES!!!”
They want to write poems and recite them to the entire class? Have I died and gone to teacher Heaven? Where are the apathetic students of yester-weeks? Where are my indifferent students, the ones who groan about writing a free write for two minutes? And now they want to write poems?
I love it, I love it, I love it!!!
So today we covered Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess,” which I like to give a dramatic reading of and then lay it out for them (the Duke will choke a bitch if she doesn’t make him feel super special); “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” by Adrienne Rich, and “Out, Out–” by Robert Frost, which everyone thinks is incredibly sad by the end (I mean, a little boy dies, so they should think it’s sad).
In my first class, we also watched some spoken word poetry, one funny slam poem by Tom Hanks about Full House, and one awesome segment from Def Poetry Jams by Scorpio Blues.
The one I didn’t show is a poem called “S for Lisp” by George Watsky. I blush a little when I show it to my class, mostly because of the oral sex references. But what this poem gets at is something that I do think is important for my students to hear: our voices, the way we talk, are natural, unique, valid, amazing, and should never be the object of banter or insult. A subtle lisp, an accent, a stammer, a hesitation, they all make us part of who we are.
If there’s one thing I want my students to take away from the poetry lessons I teach, it’s to like reading. To not fear poetry anymore. But I also want them to take away a sense that their voices are strong and unique, and if they don’t use their voices, if they slip anonymously into the crush of the crowd, silent and subtle and subdued, they will fade. They will lose their light. (Okay, so two things.)
And as a writer, as a teacher, as a fellow human being, I hope they never lose their light. I hope I never lose mine. I hope we shine so, so bright. I hope we keep on shining.
Poetry Day One: success.