What’s your favorite poem? (An accidental experiment)

As a board member for Cornell’s Center for the Literary Arts, I volunteered to execute our National Poetry Month idea. Every day, for the month of April, we’d post a poem (selected by staff/students) to our Facebook page ; and so I asked people for their favorite poem. At first this was easy because I contacted the English Department and some literary groups on campus. But as I posed this question to friends and miscellaneous classmates it became a challenge that left me saddened and frustrated. I was constantly met with these responses: “I just don’t read poetry”… “I don’t have one”… “I don’t get poetry”… “I’m not really the person to ask”… “I can’t think of one”

While I encountered one group that had too many poems come to mind (professors and English majors), I encountered another who went blank (many of my peers). In fact, people seemed taken aback by my question. “My favorite poem???” What an outrageous, obscure question? Favorite band, favorite movie, favorite color, favorite food. sure! But poem?? This was just bizarre…

So why does this divide exist? When does poetry start carrying a stigma in the eyes of the general public? When we were kids our story books were full of rhymes and we’d eagerly write and share our own poems. But not anymore. Somewhere along the line, the velvet rope forms: Poetry seems like it’s part of an exclusive club. Poetry is seen as old, frivolous, and pretentious. We become agitated, poetry is suddenly a condescending prick: “Poetry thinks it’s better than me!” Poetry is a pile of BS, molded by literary devices.

And as these negative thoughts build, poetry becomes the leper of English class. 

As a prospective high school English teacher I can already picture a classroom of eye rolls and sighs the moment I bring up the topic of poetry.

I think the brevity of poetry is what makes it so intimidating. With novels, you have pages and pages to work with. You have characters with names and definite settings. Even if you only understand the plot, even if you fail to notice the deeper meanings, the symbols, the amazing rhetoric, you can still enjoy it at face value.

Many people can’t do that with poetry, probably because they weren’t encouraged to. Teachers wanted us to be able to dissect it and while that’s important I can’t help but think it turned off a lot of people. At face value, poetry is a series of sounds strung together. But in the classroom we are usually pushed to find something deeper immediately. I have never seen anyone raise their hand in class and say I like the way this poem sounds, we always jump straight to meaning: “I feel like the cacophony of the first stanza shows the speaker’s initial frustration”.

We are taught how to analyze poetry but not how to love poetry. We are given the same poems year after year: The Road Not Taken, Beat! Beat! Drums!, A Narrow Fellow In The Grass, and so on. Students are rarely encouraged to find their own favorites/share poems they love with their peers. In high school we lock poetry into the 19th and 20th century. And when it’s time to write our own poems, most of us have already decided that we are not poets. We have decided poetry is not for us. To me, this is because we get a glimpse of poetry that is far too narrow. The classroom takes poetry too seriously AND too lightly. It’s a novelty subject. We only study it for a small fraction of the year, this robs students of the opportunity to construct their own meaning of what poetry is. We don’t have time to appreciate it as art, only to accept it as an assignment.

In my future classroom, I want to remove the velvet rope that separates us from poetry. I want to encourage my students to write poetry and help them understand that everyone has something to say. I want them to know that when it comes to the writers of the past, they too, had something to say. Of course, I am there to help them construct meaning for their analyses. But most importantly, I want them to understand that poetry is beautiful and genuine. Something to be enjoyed. When I ask my students “what’s your favorite poem?” I want them to struggle. Not because they don’t have one, but because too many come to mind.

Please comment below and tell me what your favorite poem is or tell me your best/worst experience from high school English class.

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