Teaching Poetry To High Schoolers (or Whomever)

Author: Dan Rosenberg

Teaching is most fun, and most effective, when everyone in the room gives a damn. Poetry teachers at any level under the MFA usually face a population that’s not uniformly excited about it, but generally the younger they are, the more quickly they get on board. That’s what makes teaching poetry to high school students – which I’ve only done as a visiting poet in the schools and in academic summer camps, never in the trenches as their regular English teacher –  such a treat. Even if they don’t give a damn at first, they’re shockingly easy to sway.

If you have the chance to introduce these kids to the pleasures of poetry before they’re hardened into business majors, do it. When I teach high school students (though this holds true for most other populations as well) I try to keep these three notions in mind:

1. Damage Control

The first duty of a poet teaching high schoolers is damage control. Somewhere along the way, most of your students will have learned that they are stupid and that poetry is out to remind them of this fact. Mostly, their English teachers can’t do much to counter this perception because they have the same relationship to poetry as most fiction writers and prose-focused academics: a kind of bemused, obligatory respect combined with a dash of apathy and a hearty dollop of wariness.

Because of their prior experiences with poetry, your students will mostly think of poems as unnecessarily complex ciphers, riddles that play by obscure rules and that the student must attempt to unlock. The teacher has the key, and once that key is divined, or simply explained to the student, the meaning of the poem becomes clear and the student’s job is complete. The poem has been gotten. Donne wants the lady to sleep with him, and that’s why he’s talking about fleas. The end. On to sentence diagramming. (Just kidding; they don’t learn sentence diagramming anymore.)

Your response to this notion of poetry starts the minute you walk through the door: a real living poet. Do your best to look nothing like the drawing of Shakespeare that they picture, if they picture anything, when they think of a “poet.” Smile. Act your age or a bit younger. Don’t wear a frilly collar. Don’t seem out to make them feel stupid. Your very physical presence makes for a very easy first step down the damage control path.

The next step varies based on the kind of poet/teacher you are. I try to build all of my lessons around conveying my love of poetry to my students, to help them shift away from the paradigm of getting the poem and toward the paradigm of appreciating or even loving it. I perform my own responses to the poems we look at, and I encourage them to reflect on their own.

I try to humanize the poets – particularly the dead, old poets – that I teach, to make them seem like real, live, people who had desires and fears and aspirations that are still palpable in their work. Most of my students have never seen someone so animated about a poem before: I let myself get almost silly with my excitement, which is part of the permission I’m trying to give them. I want them to understand poetry as something that happens in an eternal present, that it is ongoing and alive and worthy of our time and deepest energies. Student evaluations always talk about how passionate about poetry I am, and it’s true. But it’s also a performance, and one of the most important things I do in the classroom. However you behave as a teacher, remember: you are modeling a relationship to poetry, and if you want them to get excited, you have to get excited.

2. Humor

Hardly any of your students will have encountered an “adult” poem that made them smile, let alone laugh. They’ve been told that Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seuss are for children, and since then the poems they’ve encountered, if any, are all Very Serious.

Kenneth Koch’s excellent books on teaching offer a pile of ways to counter this phenomenon. I have always had great success with his activity based on William Carlos Williams’s “This Is Just to Say.” I just taught a group of absurdly gifted high school students, and several of them had read the poem before. But when I asked them if they thought it was funny, they all stared at me blankly. They had learned Williams as a Very Serious Poet. He writes about wheelbarrows in ways that manage to be simultaneously boring and confusing, so no, not many chuckles at his poem about eating fruit stolen from some obsolete refrigeration box.

But Koch suggests that teaching the rhetoric of the poem – it’s a delightfully, diabolically insincere apology – is the key to introducing students to the humor, and thus the joy, of the poem. I always teach Koch’s own “Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams” alongside the original poem, and then have the students write their own variations. It’s always a hit.

I don’t stop at pointing out the humor of Williams’s rhetoric, though. My goal isn’t to show that some poems can be funny; it’s to show that humor can be an essential part of the larger pleasures of poetry.

So I always make them repeat the end of “This Is Just to Say,” out loud, all together, several times in a row. I call their attention to the assonance and consonance of the end of the poem, and how those s and o sounds feel in their mouths. I ask them to come up with adjectives to describe that feeling, those sounds. We discuss how the speaker’s insincerity stems from how much pleasure he got from eating the plums, and how that physical pleasure appears in the sounds at the end of the poem: the slippery, sloppy s’s and the slow, round, juicy o’s.

The point I try to get across is that assonance and consonance and other poetic devices are more than things to identify on a quiz; they can make a funny poem funnier, more pleasurable. And they can make a sad poem sadder, more impactful, too. I try to help my students understand that the way we look at Williams can work for any poem, and that identifying things like assonance and consonance is only meaningful if you can figure out what effects they have – at which point they enrich the whole poem. It’s not vocabulary for vocabulary’s sake; it’s learning how poems work so we can appreciate them more when they work well.

3. Vernacular

If you’re teaching older poems, try to include contemporary ones too, and teach them in reverse-chronological order. Most of your students’ experience of poetry doesn’t exist in their vernacular, which contributes to its impenetrability. Not only does it ask them to think differently from every other way they’re being trained in school to think, but it doesn’t even use normal words to do so.

By starting with something more contemporary, you can help your students build up the reading skills and working vocabulary necessary to tackle more difficult texts. Diving straight into Gerard Manley Hopkins can be daunting, but if you get there through Olena Kalytiak Davis, the students are primed to enjoy his rhythms and sounds even when they’re not sure what it means when embers “gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.”

The vocabulary they develop for talking about the poems written in an English closer to their own becomes their major tool for engaging with older poems, and you can still make your points about tradition, appropriation, and adaptation. You can talk about influence, but illustrate it in reverse. 

Foregrounding more contemporary poems also helps combat the idea that poetry died some time in the 1700s. Tracing lineages back into the past can communicate the idea that poetry is very much alive, that it is growing and evolving as the world changes, and that there’s room for new voices, new generations of poets. Maybe even them.

I don’t know that I’ve converted anyone to loving poetry who wasn’t already well on her way to becoming a young poet, but I have definitely convinced many students that poetry is worth caring about, is more exciting to read than they’d thought, is a human endeavor pursued by people who are doing their best to write something worth reading.

And in the process, I remind myself of that more fundamental pleasure, that expanded awareness of my world and of others in their genuine otherness, that made me fall in love with poetry in the first place. Teaching high schoolers is a bulwark, for me, against letting my own relationship to the poems I read and write get too clouded with theory. For them the encounter is still pure; the goal isn’t (usually) to write a “publishable” poem, but to find a way to put together words on the page in an exciting, satisfying, stimulating way. They tend to respond with wonder to things I might otherwise take for granted. And their wonder rekindles my own.

Teaching poetry to high school students is rejuvenating because they’re not that hard to convince of its importance, really. They already believe, deep in those parts of their brains that have survived years of schooling. Your job is pretty easy, then: just show them that they’re right.