Teaching Poetry in Season

Teaching Poetry in Season

Of all the fine arts, poetry is the most difficult to teach. The popular conception of poetry itself, shaped as it was by the modernist rebellion against form, convention, and tradition, deserves much of the blame. Argument and narrative were cast out in favor of the striking image and the weight of passion; then meter and rhyme, the better to enable spontaneous expression, discarding all genres but the personal lyric. Grammatical, logical, and sequential connection were next. Poetry was in free fall, with no firm floor or wall or handhold to offer purchase. The charade eventually became obvious to the general public, and the ancient prestige of poetry, based on its power to engage and enchant, disappeared.

In my fifty-five years of teaching poetry, I have never found a method or a technique that both I and my students liked. Very few of them had learned in primary or secondary school how meter and rhyme worked, or even how to conduct the rhetoric and logic of an idea.

I knew that I could run the class as a free-form therapy session, but my conscience would not let me. There was always a great deal of remediation necessary before the craft itself could be addressed.

When I taught the craft of meter and form, about half the students, who wanted to emote or ramble on paper without any sense of form, found the work harsh and uninspiring. Some, though, were fired by the whole universe of possible meters, stanza forms, rhyme-schemes, genres, and poetic voices that opened up for them.

When I taught by using examples of great poetry from the canon, a few found in the poems I chose lifelong companions and inspirations, and their lives afterwards were partly shaped by having those poems by heart. But others were impatient to get to their own poetry, and were either resistant to the great poets we read, as irrelevant, or intimidated by them because of the vastness of their world and the work it would take to explore it.

When I carefully analyzed the poetry they wrote, pointing out where it was tripping itself up or giving the reader a meaning totally opposite from what they intended, a few began to work more deeply on their patterns of imagery and symbolism, and choose their words with striking precision. But many got discouraged or defiant, retreating into the assertion that their poem had meaning for them, and that it was personal and sacrosanct.

Of the hundreds I have taught, perhaps ten became real poets. Of those ten, hardly any sound like me or use ideas I remember teaching; but I must have passed something on, and I believe that those ten make all the difference in the world. It was worth all the frustration. But if I had been able to start with them at seven years old, I think that number would have been ten times higher. As with language teaching, it may be folly to start teaching poetry writing at the age of eighteen. By then the love of magical rhythmic language has been abandoned in fashionable embarrassment, the emotions are stereotyped, and logic confined to the world of practicality. And perhaps the best way to learn is simply to read closely, memorizing and imitating the great poets of the past, as Yeats says:

Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence.

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