While I’m a firm believer that poetry should be read throughout the year, I fear I tend to wait until April, when it’s National Poetry month, to write about it—just as many a teacher waits until then to dust off the poetry books. This is a shame, if not a crime, as is the fact that too many Common Core interpretations have all but squeezed poetry out of the curriculum or relegated it to a handful of lessons to tick off Reading Literature Standards 4 and 5.
Why this is so, I can’t say for sure–though for me it’s related to the schools where I work doing less poetry. But I’ve wondered whether the reason why poetry is so absent from the Common Core has to do with the fact that, perhaps more than any other genre, poems ask, even beg, to be felt. Poets want us to feel their words in a way that seems almost antithetical to those Common Core close reading approaches that say that the meaning of the text resides, not in a reader’s heart or mind, by within the four corners of the text. Mary Oliver, for instance, talks about the pleasure readers feel when they “enter the rhythmic pattern of a poem:”
“It takes no more than two or three lines for rhythm, and a feeling of pleasure in that rhythm, to be transferred from the poem to the reader.”
And Dylan Thomas’s definition of poetry goes straight to feelings as well:
“Poetry is what in a poem makes you laugh, cry, prickle, be silent, makes your toe nails twinkle, makes you want to do this or that or nothing, makes you know that you are alone and not alone in the unknown world, that your bliss and suffering is forever shared and forever all your own.”
My experience in classrooms, however, is that if I begin by asking students what a poem is, I get a list of terms of the things poems can have—stanzas, rhyme schemes, similes, metaphors; I’m sure you know all the culprits. But if we begin instead by reading poems with the question “What does a poem do for a reader?” in mind, we get closer to Dylan Thomas as students start seeing that poems can make us smile or feel sad or see ordinary things in extraordinary ways. Once kids start feeling poems this way, it’s often fun to bring in quotes by poets like Dylan Thomas, which can affirm what students are experiencing and offer new ways of thinking about how a poem affects them—as in, considering which poems make your toe nails twinkle. For younger students I love using quotes from Seeing the Blue Between, which pairs poems with letters of advice to young poets and readers of poetry by 32 renowned children’s poet. And for older students, I have a stash of quotes, such as the ones below:
“What is poetry? And why has it been around so long? . . . When you really feel it, a new part of you happens or an old part is renewed, with surprise and delight at being what it is.” James Dickey
“Poems are other people’s snapshots in which we see our own lives.” Charles Simic
“We should read poetry because only in that way can we know man in all his moods—in the beautiful thoughts of his heart, in his farthest reaches of imagination, in the tenderness of his life, in the nakedness and awe of his soul confronted with the terror and wonder of the Universe.” Amy Lowell
Then and only then do I move from exploring what a poem does for a reader to how it manages to do that. And one of my favorite ways of helping students—and teachers—see how poems work their magic on readers is by asking students to think about how a poem is different than a greeting card, such as this birthday card for a mom: And this poem by Judith Ortiz Cofer: Many students can readily see that the poem on the card is broader and more general—even, we might say, generic—and it more or less hits one emotional note. Cofer’s poem, on the other hand, is highly specific. She writes about a particular mother who we can picture and hear and who is much more complicated than the every mom of the card. Because Cofer’s mother is so complicated, she and the poem seem more real to me than the ‘always’ mom of the card. And while my mom never wore an amulet or lived in a second-floor walk-up, the poem gets me thinking about all the complicated and confusing messages she sent me through the way she put on her lipstick or clutched my white-gloved hand in hers as we hurried through Grand Central Station.
In this way the poem does exactly for me what Simic says poetry does. I see myself in the specifics of Cofer’s poem, despite the fact that all those specifics are quite foreign to me. And this is the magic of poetry—and, I think, of all literature: the more specific and particular it is, the more it taps into universals that enrich, deepen and move us.
The poem, though, is harder to understand than the card, which is why some students say initially say that they like the card better. But focusing on feelings can help us here, too. As a strategy for accessing poems that feel hard, we can ask students to think about what feeling the poem evokes for them—even if they’re not sure why—and to locate lines where they think they feel it. This also works as the kind of rich task I wrote about the other week, as different students pick up whiffs of different feelings arising from different lines. In this poem, for instance, many students pick up fear, which they feel in various lines, though some also feel safety or relief in the last few lines or a sense of the daughter’s pride in the line about the “gypsy queen.”
Anchoring themselves in the poem through these lines, students can then begin to think how these lines and feelings are connected with others by wrestling with the sort of open-ended questions I shared in January. This will ultimately allow them to interpret the poem and then—and only then—to hit Reading Standards 4 and 5. Or put another way, before students can analyze how a poet’s specific choice of words, structure and figurative language shape meaning, they have to feel the affects of those choices on themselves as readers first.
Of course the words ‘feel’, ‘feelings’ and ‘pleasure’ are nowhere to be found in the Standards. But if we hold on to what the Standards do say—that they “define what all students are expected to know and be able to do, not how teachers should teach.”—it seems we’re in the all clear. Or we could just keep it our little secret to share with our colleagues and friends.