I feel like I have been a good day or two behind on everything this week, so I was grateful that Katherine Sokolowski shared this post from Teri Lesesne in my Facebook feed this morning. I might have missed it otherwise – it’s from yesterday.
This came after an early morning poetry binge (Thank heavens for the internet allowing me to be introduced to all manner of new poets all the time!). So when I got to this part in Teri’s post, my heart fell:
As we celebrate National Poetry Month, I once again recall the words of my friend and former colleague Bob Seney who commented that poetry made him smell formaldehyde. It is about dissection. Call it close reading, but it is picking apart text. At the end what remains? A bunch of pieces.
Yep. I know that smell when it comes to poetry.
It killed my love of poetry until I reached GRADUATE SCHOOL.
Sure, I enjoyed listening to my dad reciting poems – he does that a lot – but there wasn’t a chance in anything that I would be picking up poetry to read on my own. No way, no how. I read what I had assigned to me in my classes and I went through the motions to make my teachers happy, but there was no love.
So it’s no surprise that I offer this poem to my students when I start studying poetry with them.
This poem certainly offers me a chance to introduce Billy Collins to my students, but I share it so that I can make a confession.
I always thought the them in the poem was teachers.
And as a teacher, I fear that them could be students who don’t want to wonder.
That’s the key to loving poetry: to be willing to wonder. To appreciate the sound, the feel of the words and wonder what they might mean when they are put together this way. To link what you know to what’s there on the page or the screen or your headphones. To roll around in the possibilities and appreciate that they can be just like Schrödinger’s cat: that the possibilities are all still possible as long as you don’t look to see what someone else says it means and all other possibilities go bye-bye.
I guess what I do when I read poetry technically is close reading, but close reading feels so distanced and clinical that I have a hard time viewing what I do when I read poetry. I do examine the language. I do look up words that I don’t know or don’t know well. Sometimes I annotate – but that’s only because I love to see what changes from one reading to the next.
Teaching students how to do this is tricky. Wonder and fascination cannot be taught as a step-by-step how-to list. Students need to find their own way and what we offer them as teachers (and hopefully lovers of poetry) are suggestions, things to consider. A tourist’s guidebook rather than a rigidly scheduled itinerary.
Readers need the right to meander, find what they like, what moves them – what leads them to wonder.
So I introduce them to Billy Collins and Taylor Mali Michael Salinger, Sara Holbrook, and Sarah Kay. We page through our textbook and anthologies. We look at the Poetry Foundation’s poetry app on our handy-dandy devices. I share the New York Times Learning Networks Poetry Pairings and The Writer’s Almanac. I know when they’ve found what moves them because they stop looking.
What moves them might not be what moves me. But when they find what does, it’s less about what to do and more about how to explain what they are thinking.
It took me years to get the stench of formaldehyde off those poems I have found I actually loved. Be careful what you do, teachers. Your mark can be left – for good or for ill – for years after they leave your classroom.