Teaching Poetry

There was a very interesting conversation going on at my table last Saturday night at our annual 46th District Democrats Holiday Party about the problems of teaching math. By a math teacher. Who more or less confessed that he still didn't know how to do it. I think he likely does do it, and do it rather well, but he didn't feel satisfied with his own efforts. Which made me think well of him.

The problem, he said, was the difference between knowing and teaching. If you've ever tried to teach someone how to tie their shoes or parallel park, you get the idea.

At some point, one conversant pointed out that, although her own son did very well in math and science, he was bored to tears with most of what is usually called "the humanities." You know, history, literature, philosophy, poetry. Poetry, I think she said, he found particularly dull and useless. I have a feeling that his literature/poetry teacher was having a more difficult time teaching a subject she or he likely knew as well as the math teacher knew math than the math teacher was having drilling equations into teenage twittering heads. Math, as someone at the table pointed out, has answers. Right answers. One right answer per problem.

Poetry doesn't. Have answers. Right answers. Any. At all. So, how do you teach something that poses questions to which there are no right answers?

My first thought, actually, was that you don't. From my advanced age and vast experience, I have come to the conclusion that poetry is, like so many other things, wasted on the young. What do they know of life or death or love or loss or anything worth knowing at all? What can John Donne or Robert Frost or Mary Oliver tell them that Ke$ha and Maroon 5 and Chris Brown hasn't already drummed into their dear little heads? I don't know, because I just picked those last three out of a Google link to Top 40 2012.

But that's the lazy way out. High school sophomores may not have everything it takes to know how a poem means, but some of them have some of it already. Some have already known death and loss. Some of them have home lives you wouldn't wish on your worst. Some of them have everything anyone could hope for, and yet ... Life and death and love and loss don't have answers either. But chances are, the questions they pose will pop up more often than something requiring basic algebra.

Poetry might not have answers. What poetry will have is understanding. Somewhere out there is a poet who gets it. Who gets you. Who can paint a picture with words that describes how you feel. Who can paint a picture with words that lifts you off your feet. Who can paint a picture with words that wrings the tears from your heart. Who can cleanse or comfort or infuse your day with joy.

So I say, teach the poetry. Nevermind iambic pentameter, spondees, what have you. Oh, throw some specifics in there for the exam. Because those are the only solid answers available for a poetry exam. Young people are full of themselves, so full of the drama that is their life. Use that. Have them read poetry out loud. There is rhythm, music, in the lines. They'll get the beat. Get them up on their feet declaring

In Xanadu did Kublai Khan
A stately Pleasure-Dome decree,
Where Alph, the sacred river ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

These kids play video games. They know sacred rivers and sunless seas.
Have someone, a boy, the rowdiest boy in the room, get up and read, in as soft a voice as he can muster,

Did you too see it, drifting, all night, on the black river?
Did you see it in the morning, rising into the silvery air -
An armful of white blossoms,
A perfect commotion of silk and linen as it leaned
into the bondage of its wings; a snowbank, a bank of lilies,
Biting the air with its black beak?

Learning poetry in 10th grade might or might not teach you something about yourself. But for some of us, we remember it was there. And when we're older, when we're ready, we can find it again. And what we find will be packed, layer upon layer. Not with answers. But with meaning. Meaning that we finally understand.