For poetry’s sake

So, I had this dream last night…hang in there with me…it is a little fuzzy as remembered dreams tend to be. I was seated at some event with some of my favorite authors (I can’t recall who precisely; I didn’t really see them, I just knew they were there). We were in conversation and it was as though I belonged there…as though I was an equal. Then, suddenly the person seated just a few chairs down from me turns and shares details about a poetry anthology that is about to be released.

It was Maya Angelou.

In my dream, this person speaking directly to me, was Maya Angelou. I immediately, without intimidation or reticence and as though I were speaking to a friend, replied with enthusiasm for this text and began my sad story about how I have all these things to say about poetry and no voice or platform to share them more effectively. And this is where I know my sub-conscious was really trying to nudge me…Ms. Angelou looks me directly in the eyes and says, “You have a voice. You are just choosing to put other things first. Free your heart, the words will follow. Give them the time they deserve.”  I’m certain if this had truly been Maya Angelou, she would have expressed this far more profoundly, however, she was limited by the confines of my sleepy brain. Regardless, this truth-baring reprimand was enough to get me writing again…and the words below are my heart set free (well, when it comes to poetry anyway…especially the necessity of poetry in the lives of our students…).

What feels like a million years ago now when I was still young and smart, I spent my last two years of undergrad researching and composing my honors thesis on Dante’s Divine Comedy. This project was a passion of mine–I began taking Italian so I could read the poem in the original language…I read Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso each more than once…I read texts that inspired the allusions within Dante’s work…I read criticism…I wrote about all of this and then wrote some more and some more after that. It fueled my brain and felt like the most intriguing puzzle ever set before me.

When I finally narrowed my focus, I was surprised that I landed in the beauty of Paradiso rather than the glorious and righteously (and maybe vindictively) bestowed agony of Inferno. I never saw that coming, the Inferno always seemed far more deliciously awful and enjoyable. But somewhere along the way I discovered a pattern in one of the cantos of the Paradiso and my brain said, “Yes, thank you! We will park ourselves here and think some more.”

Honestly, as nerdy as this will sound, working through this text and the sometimes terror…sometimes frustration…sometimes exuberance of writing about it and about my findings was legitimately fun and some of the most gratifying work I have done in my life.

With all of that in mind…I bring you to the day of my defense. One of my favorite humanities/comparative lit professors had offered to be one of my readers, and I honestly couldn’t wait to hear the praise and accolades he would lavish. And while there was some of that, there was also something else…something that in all these 20 or so years, I have never forgotten. With a look of true disappointment, he revealed that while my academic work was excellent and my dissection of the poem important, I had lost the beauty of the words along the way…that I had completely sacrificed the magnificence of the aesthetic created by the poet in order to deconstruct the work for deeper understanding. I mean, look, my defenses went way up because the aesthetic wasn’t my focus or my purpose. But the fact that the sting of that statement still lingers, points me toward the fact that there was enough truth in what he observed that he was right.

Which brings me to the point of this first blog in a new series of blogs (well, I’m hoping it becomes a series of blogs anyway!). I’ve been advocating for years that the reason students (high school students especially) need to be studying poetry in the classroom is because it will impact them as writers in deep and meaningful ways. I know this to be true and so do so many other teachers I admire. Poetry, in its brevity and precision, offers a microcosm of what happens in prose–each word, each piece of punctuation, a deliberate and intentional act on the page–each poem, approachable for study even when it will take work to navigate because the page isn’t so overwhelmingly full.

This (in greater detail) has been my plea for the last 5 years:

Teach the poetry and your young writers will better their craft.

Something in this poetic passion project always felt hollow, false, lacking. I could never put my finger on it until the other day when I woke up from my Maya Angelou dream a little unnerved and suddenly thinking about my thesis defense. And then a more complete truth settled upon me.

In all of my research and in all of my speaking and writing on this subject, I have been too focused on the academic outcome and less focused on the human need for and the value of the aesthetic, of the emotion, of the truths contained in the beauty (albeit sometimes raw rather than rapturous) of poetry…the value of students finding themselves in a poem, finding comfort, finding joy…the value of students finding the truths of others in these brief texts…the value of the outlet of poetic composition when a student is anxious, overwhelmed, in crisis, happy, in love (and yep, teenage love counts you guys–perception is reality, so guess what…that perceived love is their reality)…

In all of my efforts to feel and sound credible, I lost sight of sharing the importance of the empathic weight of poetry and what that delivers to the human beings in our classrooms, seated before us. I ignored the truth that sometimes what we read–especially poetry–doesn’t have to be an academic pursuit, rather it can be a soulful one, a healing one, a rejuvenating one, an exploratory one–one that isn’t followed by analysis and essay, rather causes us to look carefully inward. And just because we have demands placed on us as teachers that sometimes restrict what it is that we do in our classrooms and how we do it, does not mean we cannot make the space for poetry and for allowing our students to be human beings rather than simply learning machines…for allowing them to be frail and vulnerable and to interact with a text that will foster connection and allow them to feel seen, heard, understood…for granting them time to appreciate the beauty of the words and not have to peel back layers in search of some purified explication. After all, if we are truly teaching the whole child and respecting them as individuals who deserve to be seen, doesn’t all of this fit…doesn’t all of this become required curriculum?

In the coming days and weeks, this blog will be filled with stories and moments and ideas that validate the use of poetry in the high school classroom (okay, and really in all of our lives…just saying…) and not for any other purpose than allowing our kids to feel and to wade into and to soak up the beauty of the language, its function, its artistry, its ability–for in allowing them to do that, we will empower them to harness their own emotion, to develop their own voice, to know who they are and to speak their own truths. In a world where the college admissions process has become debilitating and where our students often feel othered, unheard and ignored, how can we discount poetry when it can work against the injustices they feel and face?

love-hate

Reading and I have endured a bit of a love-hate relationship over the course of time. (I’m pretty sure that as an English teacher, I am not supposed to admit to this…but if anything, I am overly candid, so consider it a purposeful admission)

As a child, I honestly hated to read. Painfully slow, the process itself became an exercise in humiliation and self-retribution. I was a smart kid, so why was I such a slow reader? Books felt endless and the embarrassment I sustained, even when reading in a room alone, slowed my process further and detoured my comprehension regularly. I struggled to find myself and to make connections within the books I was reading, so I distanced myself from reading altogether. I faked my way through assigned readings and the subsequent tests and projects. And I must say, that I accomplished this task with style and stellar grades. An expert at covering my lack of diligence…I could take pride in that. No one would have ever guessed.

I did enjoy shorter texts. Poe’s stories riveted me and poetry was a language that seemed foreign to so many but preached wisdom to my mind and my innermost self. This isn’t surprising, though, given my situation. I was a slow reader which I thought meant I was a terrible reader and my stamina languished as a result. Short texts, even for me, became a worthwhile challenge; they made me feel smart and insightful. They propelled me forward.

My junior year of high school, though, I met with the book that would transform not only my reading life but my future as well, The Great Gatsby. It was required reading, a book not of my own choosing and so historically, it should have been one I ignored. However, something about Fitzgerald’s words and imagery drew me into its pages, into its story, into its complexity. I found myself sharing my analysis in class and in papers and realizing that while I was a slow reader, part of the reason for that was the thinking and digging into the text that were an intuitive part of my process. No one had ever really paid enough attention to my individual reading habits in school, no one had seen through my veiled charade, so no one had the ability to point this out to me–to instill the necessary confidence. Honestly, without Ms. Osborn’s English III Honors class and this book that captivated my imagination and captured my attention, I would not be an English teacher today. (I really love to tell my students who complain about being slow readers this story! I don’t expect them all to become English teachers, but it is so important for them to know that there are more possibilities than they realize in their own stories and reading lives.)

In recent years, my brain has been distracted by my inner ear issues and the accompanying vertigo and reading became a different kind of challenge. My process slowed more than usual–I fought for comprehension and retention while my brain focused more intently on maintaining balance. Whether I was reading a book or student writing, taking in the words, making connections, considering deeper meanings shifted from a joyful and fulfilling process to an exercise in futility. I found myself faking my way through once again and utterly disheartened, completely discouraged. But again, poetry was the answer. I found solace in these short texts that challenged me as a reader, thinker and writer but also didn’t overwhelm my temporarily stunted abilities. Poetry became my daily meditation.

Suddenly, in the midst of those years of building resentment and irritation, an epiphany settled in. So many of my students suffer from learning differences and for them the process of reading is painful…for them, avoidance is salvation from the discomfort and humiliation of having a brain that is wired for miscommunication…for them, lack of understanding and encouragement only exacerbates their defensiveness and decimates their self-esteem. None of these kids have done anything to earn this set of circumstances, just as I didn’t ask for my inner ear to sever ties with my brain. I took it on as my duty to harness this understanding and to learn greater patience with myself as a reader and to learn what tactics would help me overcome my deficits. I took it on as my duty to work with my kids in the same way–to treat them as I was treating myself and to hope that they could learn to extend themselves some grace in the process, to open themselves up to the vulnerability of working through it. This was hard work but worthwhile, and it began with building confidence and stamina with shorter texts…it began with poetry, it began with choice.

This summer, after the surgery that healed my inner ear, my brain feasted hungrily on every book I could usher its way.  I couldn’t stop myself from reading at every possible opportunity, and I couldn’t remember the last time I had been able to enjoy books in this way. I found it difficult to explain to other people exactly what this liberation felt like; I found it difficult to relate the excitement of reveling in reading for the first time in years. A burden had released. A passion restored. A life revitalized.

(Day 27! Encouraged today by my husband’s refusal to let me quit just because I’m tired and by my students and their enduring smiles and support)