Whatever Your Classroom, Please Teach More Living Poets
Nick Ripatrazone on the Benefits of Studying
“breathing, human artists.”
“Get poetry into the high schools!” Shortly before he died in 1963, Robert Frost told Marie Bullock, founder and president of the Academy of American Poets, that not merely poetry, but poets belonged in schools. She started the “Poets in the Schools” program in 1966, sending poets like Donald Hall—by then the former poetry editor of The Paris Review—into public schools. “Poets are used to reading to college students,” Hall told Life magazine. When he visited Amelia Earhart Junior High School in Detroit, he was surrounded by eager students who asked him to recite poems in the hallway. At nearby Hutchins Junior High School, kids chanted repeating stanzas along with him.
“Poetry has a huge potential audience in this country,” Hall said. “The young are ready: they lack only the teachers and poets and boards of education to bring it to them.” Fifteen years of teaching high school English has shown me that Hall is right. Teenagers are our most buoyant selves; they are also skeptical, curious, stubborn, selfish, selfless. Storytelling—on their own terms, in their own language—is a huge part of their lives. Poetry could reach them.
Unfortunately, it often doesn’t—but I’m excited by a new trend led by Melissa Smith, a North Carolina teacher. The Teach Living Poets initiative (found online as #TeachLivingPoets) encourages teachers of young students to bring contemporary voices into the classroom. Smith, who teaches at Lake Norman Charter High School in Huntersville, tells me that she started following more poets on Twitter a few years ago. She loved the poems they’d posted, and wanted to share them with her students. “I didn’t know all the intricacies of the poem or even what it meant all the time,” she says. “I just knew I really liked it and wanted to talk about it with someone.”
Joy and curiosity are refreshing reasons to bring poetry in the classroom. Smith teaches AP Literature, a poetry-heavy course and exam (poems appear as passages for multiple-choice questions, and there is a poetry analysis essay as well). Those students fear misinterpretation: a misreading of tone or meaning can lead to a bad score. Smith’s approach required a willingness to learn with her students. I think such vulnerability is important when teaching poetry—perhaps the genre we go to when we want to express ourselves at our most vulnerable.
Her students loved the contemporary poems; the discussions were “lively and engaging.” And once her classes found the poets they read in classrooms on social media—and saw that they are living, breathing, human artists—the educational change was palpable. These living poets also showed students that writing was a possible pursuit.
Smith acknowledges that many teachers might hesitate to integrate contemporary material into the classroom. After all, poetry is a difficult genre for teachers, not to mention students, and she’s aware that “there’s a serious lack of resources out there for teachers for teaching contemporary poetry.” Perhaps more than any other genre, poetry seems to require deciphering; it must be unlocked in order to be read and understood, let alone appreciated. That places the teacher in the position of “gatekeeper”—which only reinforces the distance between student and text.
Contemporary poetry can shorten that distance. During her first year of teaching living poets, she shared work from Clint Smith and RA Villanueva. Her students loved their poems, and she keeps them on the syllabus, since adding books by José Olivarez and Safia Elhillo. She also gives students standalone poems; the ones that have most left marks on students include “Instructions for Not Giving Up” by Ada Limón, “You Get Fat When You’re in Love” by José Olivarez, and “If They Should Come for Us” by Fatimah Asghar. Her favorite poem to share with students is Kaveh Akbar’s “Portrait of an Alcoholic Floating in Space with Severed Umbilicus.”
Smith is also aware of the potential response to her mission, especially from some veteran teachers. She’s clear that #TeachLivingPoets is a way to extend the canon, not simply delete it. The AP Literature exam is steeped in poetic tradition, “stretching all the way back to Homer,” so Smith thinks it’s important for young students to “explore how the poets of today are in conversation with their predecessors.” She wants them to see how “Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, Robert Hayden, and Edgar Allan Poe (always a student favorite)” created a lineage for the present.
That doesn’t mean teachers always have to pair current poets with poets from the past, which implies that living poets are only meaningful when they are adjacent to a canonical writer. Smith tends to show her students how poetry can be seen as an evolution. In her 11th grade American Literature course, the guiding question is “what does it mean to be American?” Rather than pairing poems, she offers pieces along a continuum to show America as an evolving narrative: “Poems by Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, and Gwendolyn Brooks, along with newer poems by Joy Harjo, Richard Blanco, and Terrance Hayes work together to form a more complex understanding.”
Smith’s enthusiasm for poetry is obvious, and infectious. That’s the right mixture for a teacher of high school students. More than merely teaching living poets, she invites them into the classroom to work with the kids. I spoke with one poet, RA Villanueva, to see the author’s perspective on Smith’s approach. Villanueva’s book Reliquaria is great book that I’ve excerpted with my own students—and it doesn’t hurt that he’s taught high school himself.
He’s visited Smith’s students twice, and loves it: “what sincere joy, what curiosity, what energy and hospitality.” Villanueva says there’s “perhaps nothing better than seeing the galleries of students’ projects up on the walls: their posters and diagrams, their illuminations and all manner of engagements with the poems. Then, later, the chance to flip through their copies of our books to see their annotations and color-coded highlighting, their marginalia and gut-reactions to lines.” Smith puts her kids to work—and what a beautiful thing, to see students living with poetry.
Villanueva remembers his own experience with poetry as a young student. Poetry “was decidedly rooted in a kind of gross anatomy: we were given exemplars, specimen texts, work preserved and saved for our dissection. Assignments had us analyzing and searching poems for meaning, for technique, for symbolism and allusion. There was very little talk of emotion, connection, or personal resonance.” Readings, slams, and open mics in college later opened his eyes to poets “living in our world.” Now, when he visits high school classrooms, he feels “a kind of mutual wonderment in our reactions—a deep affirmation and gratitude.”
Some living poets are cantankerous; some simply can’t be bothered to meet with high school students. But I suspect that a fair number of poets, like Villanueva, want to see kids learn to love language. Fellow teachers: let’s follow Smith’s lead and teach living poets.
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