A Call for Poetry in English Composition

Like most English faculty members, I always have to teach English composition each semester, along with my literature courses. For adjunct instructors, the English comp load is much heavier, sometimes, at multiple schools. While the course may differ from school to school, at least slightly, it does have some common features. A research paper is generally always taught, along with the three appeals, MLA, and APA. But surrounding the research project are shorter writing assignments, and composition instructors do have some flexibility in terms of those assignments.

For years, I’ve included a poetry unit in the course, usually after the research paper, as we drive towards the final weeks of the semester. I do this for a number of reasons. First, I hope to reset their views on poetry. A lot of students groan about having to study poetry again. They return to their 10th grade high school classroom and the Emily Dickinson poem they just couldn’t understand, especially when they had to dissect its meter. By their first year in college, a lot of students are convinced that they’ll never understand poetry, which is why it should be taught! During their first year in college, students have the opportunity to reset, to try something new, to challenge their notions about various subject matters.

Immediately, I tell students not to worry about form, meter, rhythm, and other textbook elements so much. Instead, I’m more interested in having an open discussion about the poems. What works? What doesn’t work? What are the figurative and literal readings? How do they relate to the poem or not relate? By opening the discussion this way, I find that students are much more comfortable talking about poetry. A little later, I give them some of the terminology to use, so they can write the required lit. analysis.

I’ll also add that my poetry lists for my composition courses are contemporary. This year, I taught Donelle McGee, Meg Kearney,  Kevin Coval, Natasha Tretheway (four poets under 50), and then reached back to the mid-20th Century in Robert Hayden and Theodore Roethke, before reaching back to the early 20th Century in covering some of Carl Sandburg’s Chicago poems.

I do this because I want the students to be able to understand the language. I also believe that if they REALLY take an interest in poetry, then they will go back to see who influenced those poets. But for students just encountering poetry again, or even encountering it for the first time, I want them to be able to understand the language. If they take my literature courses, they’ll have a chance to read works much earlier than the 20th Century. First, however, I need to ensure they don’t have poetry phobia.

I encourage any composition instructor comfortable teaching poetry to teach it because it enhances a student’s ability to closely read a text and critically analyze a work line by line. Once the class wraps up, there just may be a few comments on the class evaluation that state a few students really disliked poetry going into the class but their views changed.

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