In Praise of Teaching Poetry
English teachers are often condemned for ruining poetry for everyone. For making poetry seem harder than it needs to be, flogging a dead verse and generally turning people off it. We’re told we teach too much haiku, too many “dead white guys” or that we look too closely for meaning that’s probably not actually there. If teachers are destroying your love and enjoyment of poetry, then I’m deeply sorry. On behalf of all teachers everywhere, I apologise because I can assure you, the last thing we’re trying to do is ruin something we hold in such high regard.
Most English teachers I know are secret poets anyway, many with our own published work. We have our favourite poems that we like to wheel out on special occasions, we recite lines to each other over mugs of instant coffee in the staffroom, we gasp involuntarily when we see Keats or Plath or Eliot on the latest book list. If anything, we’re trying not to appear too excited, too beguiled by the magic of language and metaphor and that we get to read, pore over, discuss it in our working days.
When I started my current job two years ago, I was sent the outline for the coming term. Every year level in English was studying poetry in some form. We had lovely NZ/Australian writer Lia Hills as our poet in residence doing workshops with the Year 7s and 8s, culminating in a poetry evening for parents. The Year 10s were writing a poetry portfolio based on close studies of the work of Darwish, Neruda, Transtromer, Akhmatova, Yeats, Heaney, Hughes, Bobbi Sykes, Eliot and Dylan Thomas. I added a few more women to the list – Grace Taylor, Grace Nichols, Dorothy Porter, Kate Tempest, Sarah Holland-Batt – and couldn’t believe my luck.
But what of the students? I’ll admit some struggled to write their own poetry. Lia Hills talked a lot about gathering “raw material”, having something to say and crafting words purposefully. Students learnt about the power of line breaks and moving a poem away from a narrative retelling to something more suggestive. Many of them created things you probably wouldn’t have expected from 13 year olds.
The Year 10s completed their portfolios and while some relished the opportunity – compiled their work into titled anthologies and ordered them carefully beneath beautifully designed covers – others squeezed out the bare minimum. But isn’t that just teaching for you? My main concern was, having studied poetry for a term, did they now hate it?
Poetry, like Maths, is often one of those things that young people have a fixed mindset about. They might have encountered something tricky early on and decided it wasn’t for them, but the teacher’s job is to open their minds and to help them find a way back in. It’s therefore almost surprising when I hear students say they love poetry and enjoy reading, studying and writing it. It seems I too have been conditioned into thinking teaching poetry is an up-hill battle.
I’m very lucky to teach at a school that values poetry. We have staff members with PhDs in poetry and translation, we are writers, we are daily readers of poetry. In previous schools, I’ll admit I’ve had to go down the haiku route a bit, but for some young minds having a formula, a rule and something to count out on fingers while writing makes the whole process more manageable, while not detracting from the magic of language.
I started this year again with poetry all round. The Year 7s wrote their own version of Carl Sandburg’s ‘Wilderness’, the Year 8s studied a range of poetry about ‘outsiders’ and created amazing digipoems with stop motion animation and cleverly edited soundtracks using software I had never seen before. My Year 11 Literature class enthusiastically read the work of Gwen Harwood. I didn’t once hear anyone groan at the idea of poetry and can only hope that when they encounter it in another form next year and the year after that their eyes will light up like a newly recruited English teacher looking over her poetry-filled syllabus.
Saradha Koirala’s latest collection of poetry is Photos of the Sky (The Cuba Press, 2018). She teaches English and Literature in Melbourne.