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.

Beyond Tradition: Bringing Poetry to the Classroom

On a panel I attended at the AWP Conference in Minneapolis, poet Jericho Brown addressed the notion of balancing the canon with more contemporary works. Brown noted that he often does incorporate poems he “loves” into the classroom, but admitted that he would feel bad if one of his students mentioned in a conversation that he/she did not know  Robert Lowell or Elizabeth Bishop. What I took from Brown’s comment is that he balances the canon with more contemporary works that he loves, and even in the poems he doesn’t necessarily love, Lowell’s “Skunk Hour” was mentioned, he could at least cover the poem’s techniques with the students.

I thought about this panel again as I finished poet Tony Hoagland’s newest essay collection, Twenty Poems  That Could Save America. Hoagland declares in the final chapter, “Somehow, we blew it. We never quite got poetry inside the American school system and thus never quite inside the culture.” Hoagland is right. Poetry often draws frowns and sighs from students, even at the college level.  He blames this primarily on the way poetry is taught, adding, “Let us blame instead the stuffed shirts who took an hour to explain that poem in their classrooms, who chose it because it would need an explainer; pretentious ponderous ponderosas of professional professors will always be drawn of the poems that require a priest.”

Hoagland’s solution to this problem is to offer students more contemporary work, and his list includes Anne Carson, Sharon Olds, Alan Feldman, Mary Ruefle, and others.

I thought of Jericho Brown and Tony Hoagland’s commentary in the context of my own teaching. I will note that what I teach now is mostly literature and composition. In my literature courses, primarily American literature and African American Literature, the old is balanced with the contemporary, since we move forward in time as the courses progress. That stated, I thought of poetry in terms of composition and creative writing classes, where I am less bound to historical timeframes as I am in a literature class. In those classes, composition especially, students are quite tentative about poetry. Because of that, I include a lot of contemporary work, including Natasha Tretheway, Robert Hayden, James Wright, Phil Levine, and other poets whose language students can understand. For a lot of them, it makes the poetry experience more pleasant. Furthermore, I agree with Hoagland that if a student really becomes invested in poetry, then he/she will go back and see and read what influenced those contemporary poets. In addition, I group the poems by subject matter, so we can examine the way two poems explore the loss of a parent, for instance.

Now, that said, in  upper-level classes, it would behoove an instructor to ensure those students, especially if they plan to enroll in an M.F.A. program or Ph.D. program, have a grasp of the tradition. This is where personal reading lists come However, those introductory composition and creative classes are often a student’s first exposure to poetry since high school, so contemporary poetry is a way to make the experience more pleasant and allow the poet to be an ambassador for the craft as an instructor.

On Teaching Poetry

I am sharing a video by the Academy of American Poets featuring Naomi Shihab Nye, a poet whose work I like quite a lot. This video focuses on Nye’s comments about teaching poetry and the difficulty of poetry. Much of what she says in this video resonates with me both as a poet and a full-time English instructor at a college. When I taught creative writing in the past, I’ve had students groan about having to write poetry, and when I come to the poetry unit in my literature courses, I have countless students who think that they can’t get or understand poetry. I have had my own theories on why this is, and some of my students have confessed to me that their experience with poetry in high school was reduced to dissecting meter on a black board, as though poetry is a math equation that needs to be solved.

Nye brings up another point, however, that I think is true. She states, “Something happened with poetry a while ago where it became a measurable thing. You either get it or you don’t get it.” She stresses the importance of sweeping that idea under the rug in the classroom and creating an environment where love for poetry is known and welcome. She also recommends allowing students to bring in poems that resonate with them and talking for a few minutes about why they love the poem so much.   Furthermore, she recommends playing audio clips of the poets reading their work. This is something I do in nearly all of my classes. I have noticed time and time again that when students can hear a voice and associate that voice with the poem, they relate to the poem more. Sometimes, it makes the poem easier for them to understand, too. Though this is a short video, there is a lot of good feedback in here regarding teaching, creative writing pedagogy, and teaching poetry.

Here is the video. Enjoy!

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.