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.

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.