The point of reading a poem is not to try to “solve” it. Still, that quantifiable process of demystification is precisely what teachers are encouraged to teach students, often in lieu of curating a powerful experience through literature. The literature itself becomes secondary, boiled down to its Cliff’s Notes demi-glace.
These are the words of a teacher who confesses that 16 years after enjoying a high school literary education rich in poetry, I am a literature teacher who barely teaches it. So far this year, my 12th grade literature students have read nearly 200,000 words for my class. Poems have accounted for no more than 100.
This is a shame—not just because poetry is important to teach, but also because poetry is important for the teaching of writing and reading.
Andres Simmons is an American and he is writing in The Atlantic. He explores the fate of poetry in the modern classroom – and the fate of the students deprived of a good education through poetry, deprived of one of the richest and enriching means of expressing our understanding and feelings about the human condition that there is.
In an education landscape that dramatically deemphasizes creative expression in favor of expository writing and prioritizes the analysis of non-literary texts, high school literature teachers have to negotiate between their preferences and the way the wind is blowing. That sometimes means sacrifice, and poetry is often the first head to roll.
Yet poetry enables teachers to teach their students how to write, read, and understand any text. Poetry can give students a healthy outlet for surging emotions. Reading original poetry aloud in class can foster trust and empathy in the classroom community, while also emphasizing speaking and listening skills that are often neglected in high school literature classes.
He admits that one of the biggest problems is that teachers either shy away from the proper method of introducing their students to poetry or lack the skills to do so.
Either of these failures leads the temptation to disembowel a poem’s meaning and diminish the personal, even transcendent, experience of reading a poem. He quotes Billy Collins who characterizes the latter as a “deadening” act that obscures the poem beneath the puffed-up importance of its interpretation. In his poem “Introduction to Poetry,” Collins writes: “all they want to do is tie the poem to a chair with rope/and torture a confession out of it./They begin beating it with a hose/to find out what it really means.”