Teaching Poetry

No matter the writing or literature class I teach, I usually present at least one unit of poetry, even in a composition class, especially when teaching a compare/contrast paper. However, teaching poetry to non-English or writing majors can be difficult. In fact, one student told me the other day that, “Poetry is weird” and he has to read a poem several times before he understands it. This is often a common idea among students. They think poetry is odd and that they can’t understand it. Others may dislike it because their only contact with it has been dissecting the meter of Emily Dickinson poems on the chalkboard in high school (which, by the way, I had to do in 11th grade. I’m still surprised I turned out to be a poet).

However, there are several ways to make poetry interesting to students, so I thought I would share some techniques I use in the classroom.

  • Teach contemporary work. My poetry units are often broad, and I’ve covered everything from Shakespeare to Keats to John Ashbery before. However, I usually work in contemporary American poets, including Kevin Coval, a slam/hip-hop poet from Chicago, Terrance Hayes, winner of the 2010 National Book Award in poetry, Kim Addonizzio, current U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Tretheway, and several others. I will sometimes even start with contemporary work and then work backwards so students can see how language and poetry have changed and how these poets come from past traditions, or at least react to previous movements/traditions. Students like reading something in a language they can understand.
  • Group the poems by theme. Whenever I teach poetry, especially in introductory level classes, I group the poems by theme and content. For instance, I will teach Carl Sandburg’s poem “Chicago” next to Kevin Coval’s poem “Miss Chicago,” so we can talk about different approaches and techniques to writing about a specific place.
  • Use music if possible. I usually do a unit on poets writing about music, so, for instance, I’ll cover Frank O’Hara’s wonderful elegy about Billie Holiday, “The Day the Lady Died,” and play a Billie Holiday song or two for them. I’ve also taught a number of William Matthews’ elegies to jazz musicians, as well as David Wojahn’s collection of rock ‘n roll sonnets from his book Mystery Train. Usually, I pick the one about the Sex Pistols. I’ve also taught some of Langston Hughes and Natasha Tretheway’s blues poems and talked about the origins of blues, while playing some songs for them so we could look at how the blues form has been used in poetry.
  •  Ask them what they think. Too often, students feel like they can’t figure a poem out, that there is some great mystery to poetry. However, if you ask them what they think about the poem, you’ll be surprised to hear what they have to say, and usually, they will have a back and forth about the poem’s form and content.
  • Ask them to write a poem. Even during a literature unit, you can build in a little creative writing, which can be a nice break from pure academic writing. Ask students to mirror a poem’s content or form. 

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