Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Why Keep Teaching the Poetry of the Past?

Yesterday a teacher friend drew my attention to an article written by an extremely well known poet, in which he suggests that middle and high schools should no longer attempt to teach canonical poetry. Instead, he says, they should focus on contemporary poems, which he feels would be more fun and relevant for both teacher and student. He believes they should relegate the old stuff (his example is Beowulf) to college.

Now, I'm not trying to start an argument with either this poet or his fans. It seems to me that he is probably more comfortable teaching contemporary poetry and that he gets good reactions from teachers and students when he does so. That's great. But poets, teachers, and students are a large and varied group, with different talents, affections, and needs. I would not be a poet if I had never read Pope or Milton or Shakespeare or Chaucer or Hopkins as a young, impressionable, romantic, yearning adolescent. I am not the only contemporary poet with this strong creative bond to the poetry of the past. But looking beyond my own case, I think that limiting young readers' interactions with the poetry of the past is a horrible, horrible idea.

1. Imagine never introducing young people to any element of American history before 1990. Why would you restrict their knowledge of literature in the same way?

2. If you limit the "hard stuff" to college classes, then what message are you sending to students who don't have the option of going to college? A glance through The Autobiography of Frederick Douglass or the letters of Emily Dickinson will remind you of the impact of these kinds of assumptions.

3. So many young people adore formal poetry. An attraction to rhyme and meter is a natural human urge. They also love the feeling of complex language in their mouths. I teach Shakespeare and Coleridge to kindergartners. Of course they can't manage an entire poem, so I give them phrases, lines, stanzas--two words in Chaucer's Middle English to experiment with, to treasure. I believe that if we encourage curiosity about language at an early age, students will become more comfortable with mystery and more adventurous in their own reading choices.

4. The stories and the emotions of the past are the stories and the emotions of the present. Dido's heartbreak is a teenager's heartbreak. Keats's peak in Darien belongs to anyone who has made a breathtaking discovery. Don't limit a young person's story to the present tense.

5. College is already a difficult transition for many students. Reducing their exposure to classic literature gives them less experience with complex writing, concentrated reading, critical comparisons, etc., etc. Why would we want our students to enter college with fewer advanced reading and writing skills?

6. Again and again, I have watched master teachers create vivid connections between poems such as Beowulf and students' familiar amusements: video games, YouTube projects, sporting events, mixtapes, and on and on. Great literature offers classes so many opportunities to play!

6. You can't tell from looking at students what works of literature will resonate with them. Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen was obsessed with the nineteenth-century English romantics. The way to reach the largest number of students is to give them as much variety as you can: poems from around the world, spanning time and place and people and ideas; poems that offer language as comfort but also as challenge.

7.  Denise Levertov's "The Secret" opens with these lines:
Two girls discover
the secret of life
in a sudden line of
But as she reminds us later in the poem,
a thousand times, till death
finds them, they may
discover it again, in other


Maureen said...

Great post, Dawn!

Mr. Hill said...

Is this a Tony Hoagland essay you're talking about, Dawn?

Carlene said...

Hurrah! And re: Beowulf...unbeknownst to me until recently, a few students of mine are developing a multi-level video game using Beowulf's challenges as the levels. They are doing this for a competition next year. All their own yeah, what would they have chosen to do if we didn't do Beowulf? hmmm =)

Dawn Potter said...

Scott, it was an article by Richard Blanco. And Carlene: "Beowulf" is absolutely perfect for a certain strain of high school boys. They adore it.

Ruth said...


David (n of 49) said...

Bravo, Dawn. Bravo.