Though fewer people read poetry than novels, it can help students learn in more ways than you might imagine.
Poetry today suffers from an image problem. In a curriculum that favours practical skills over creativity, arguably the most creative of all literatures gets overlooked — especially as it seen by many people as being ‘difficult’.
Poets themselves also still suffer from the hackneyed associations of cravats, hats and perusing at ponds. But poetry doesn’t have to be like this. Consider Kate Tempest, the musician-poet who aptly reflects millennial experience, or Claudia Rankine, who challenges racial inequality in the US.
These are the poets of today, who are not only more relatable to young people, they reflect the world we live in. A far stretch from “I wandered lonely as a cloud” — though Wordsworth too can have some place in English Literature lessons.
In an age of tweets and hashtags, the brevity of a poem should in fact be the perfect art form for students today. Tie this in with the crossover with hip-hop and grime, and it is something that students should be able to relate to.
Poetry has over recent history, been about self-expression, resistance and structural creativity. It reflects how kids engage with social media and technology. Poetry has the potential both in the classroom, and out the classroom, to teach more than a basic understanding of iambic pentameter, rhyming couplets and haikus.
What can students learn from poetry in school?
“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”
— Andrew Simmons, The Atlantic
As Andrew Simmons states, poetry as an art form can be the basis of all literary study. Even when it comes to teaching primary school kids. It can be the backbone of English Literature lessons, from nursery, all the way up to university.
So much of school is about meeting a word count or target, but poetry teaches us the impact of saying a lot in few words. It also encourages us to consider the singular impact of each word in what we write. When a single tweet or facebook post can be vilified, and spread like wildfire, potentially ruining a young person’s reputation, reading poetry can help children understand the impact of short-form language.
Likewise, understand the nuances of language, a key component of learning from poetry, can help students realise when language is used in advertising, the media and politics to manipulate them to make action. A simple poem might not seem like a big deal, but if it can teach this then it will set students up for life.
Poetry also helps in understanding different perspectives. Teaching and learning from poetry can help students respect and understand the viewpoints of people across the globe. In an age of increasing divisiveness, this is a hugely important education.
But perhaps most importantly, poetry can have a positive impact on students’ mental health. Today, it is an ever-present issue, forcing the government to take action for 2019. Writing poetry has been proven to positively impact mental health. Whether it be through spoken word, or written, it allows both students and adults to express emotions in a controlled way. It can also help young people truly find their voice.
What can we do as teachers to encourage reading poetry?
First of all, the curriculum need to move away from presenting poetry in such a way that it needs to be decoded. This only adds to the idea that poetry is difficult — which is often the main turn off for students.
“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.”
— Billy Collins, ‘Introduction to Poetry’
Another way of looking at poems is to view them as windows that reflect the world around us. Whilst understanding different poetic elements is important — particularly with aspects like line breaks and imagery — getting an insight into the way another person sees the world is what really connects people with a poem, especially for young people.
One of the difficulties for many English teachers is keeping on top of what is going on in the poetry scene. It can be hard enough learning the poems currently on the curriculum, without searching out contemporary poetry that relates to students. It’s too easy to suggest reading magazines like Poetry Review and The New Yorker, especially if you don’t have a keen interest, as it can seem like yet another task to do on top of an ever-increasing workload.
But poetry is around us today, we just have to look a little further than anthologies. Take hip-hop and grime for example. The words of Kendrick Lamar or Akala might be seen by some as a form of low art, but the lyrical complexity of the work they produce not only displays great artistry, it’s actually relatable for young people. Likewise, poets like Warsan Shire, a poet promoted by Beyonce, is not only an interesting poet to study, but kids are more likely to engage with someone who they’ve come across on social media.
Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter which poetry you choose to teach in the classroom. The benefits of studying poetry far outweigh any preconceived negatives of difficulty. Less of us may read poetry than we did 100 years ago, but its importance for students has a far greater reach than people might initially expect, and its presence in the classroom is the best place to start.