As students and teachers alike head back to school this month, the Academy of American Poets is offering an email service designed to better integrate poetry into the classroom. Based on the popular Poem-A-Day series, where a previously unpublished poem is shared via email to subscribers, Teach This Poem launches September 2 and will include interactive pedagogical tools designed for K-12 classrooms.
Even if you’re not heading back to the classroom yourself, fall is still a time for reflecting on how you learn. Since you’re here, you likely understand the importance of poetry—or perhaps like many students you yourself are wary of poetry. I recently took a course called “Teaching, Reading, and Enjoying Poetry.” Most of the students, enrolled in a graduate program, were K-12 teachers from all over the country. Most of them admitted to feeling queasy when faced with having to integrate poetry into their teaching units. I wonder how many of us encountered English teachers in our lives who felt ill-equipped to teach poetry. I wonder how many of us avoid poetry because it was a subject that used to make us feel left out or stupid, without a point of access. I wonder too how apps and email subscriptions like Teach This Poem might help infuse poetics with patience and play, rather than with a sense of duty and dread.
As someone who considers herself a poet, I find hesitancy towards poetry initially baffling. But when I step back, I understand the fear. Too many of us have, as Billy Collins writes in “Introduction to Poetry,” been taught to tie a poem to a chair and beat a confession out of it. Others might believe, as W.H. Auden famously wrote, that “poetry makes nothing happen.”
We must instead call into question a canonical conception of what poetry is to come to a more global understanding of the power of poetry. We have to reconsider what makes a poem “good”—or even, what makes a poem a poem.
Given the Poem-A-Day series focuses on previously unpublished work, there’s reason to believe the Teach This Poem series will think outside the oft-anthologized box and offer teachers new takes on familiar poems—or even better yet, poems that teachers and their students might not have otherwise encountered. This is perhaps the best course of action to take if we are to combat fear of poetry that seems to have swept across classrooms in our country (probably, no doubt, in conjunction with the obsession with STEM).
I often find my undergraduate students have a narrow view of what poetry is. To them, if it doesn’t rhyme, or isn’t something to be “finely fingered,” it isn’t a poem and certainly isn’t something they feel comfortable writing. But I find that is simply because they think they have to sound like Shakespeare. Once we explore poems by Mary Oliver, Nick Flynn, Natalie Diaz, and Danez Smith, a realm of possibility—the possibility that makes poetry—opens.
It’s interesting to see the Academy make more direct connections with K-12 education, to work within the confines of the common core to make teachers’ lives easier. It’s par for the course, too, when we consider how many apps have been designed to make teaching, reading, enjoying, and even writing poetry a mobile experience. Historically speaking, poetry has always been about serving education. One of the oldest art forms, it was a useful tool in pre-literate societies dependent upon oral tradition for the preservation of their laws, their history, and their overall being. Verse was used because it made the transmission of knowledge easier to remember. The roots of humanity exist in the forgotten, damaged, or lost verses that we re-create every time we write from a heart that seeks out connections to the past, present, and future. Poetry in all its myriad forms—canonical, musical, rapped out in a street slam, or scrawled youthfully on desks—allows a system for tapping into that collective memory, or consciousness, of what it means to be human.
So even if you’re not a K-12 teacher, or a student, why not go back to school and check out some digital ways to make poetry a part of daily life? Just don’t forget to buy some poetry at your local bookstore every once in a while, too.