New Poetry for Students: Why It Matters

The World is Changing, Literature is Changing, but Public Education isn’t Catching Up

New Poetry for Students: Why It Matters

Abby Tow, Staff Writer

Poetry is the dreaded two-week unit crammed into high school and middle school English curriculum every year. Typically it’s the classics: Whitman and Dickinson paired with mind-numbing strategies to help a student “understand” the poems. Shift, tone, metaphor, and connotation blur together into a violent dumpster fire of bored students left with two impressions:

“Poetry is stupid, and so am I.”

Every student encounters this in some other area of their education. For me, it was Chemistry. I left each class period frustrated in what I thought was useless and irrelevant to my life. My self-esteem as a thinker and as a learner was at an all-time low. This is simply a product of how my brain works. I was not made to understand science at an advanced level and I don’t grasp concepts within it as well as others do. This is also an unavoidable struggle for all students. I firmly believe, however, that poetry can be accessible to everyone, and that everyone is equipped to understand it beyond a superficial level. The two main grievances I have are what I believe to be easily mended: we assess students poorly when it comes to poetry, and we aren’t exposing them to writings that they can understand on a personal level.

Poetry and grades, in my opinion, are the hydrophobic mixture of oil and water we can’t seem to overcome. Perhaps they are inevitable. I understand fully that a school has to assess students on their understanding of poetry, and my problem is not in that fact; my problem lies in what we assess students for. If a student can read a poem, let it twist at their insides until they feel differently about the world, or give a student a poem that lets them feel some kind of comfort in a shared experience with an author that is a complete stranger to them, have we not fulfilled our goal as an education system? The better question may be, if we do not allow students to have these connections with literature, are we not failing them? Being able to identify rhyme scheme and allegories are noble pursuits in themselves, but they are niche concepts that have little to no real-world applications. This does not make poetry a fruitless endeavor. Being able to relate to others in one’s perspective and to grow in one’s world-view are key elements in the holistic education of a life-long learner. Too often we abandon this concept and spend our taxpayer dollars on analyzation lessons where the only takeaway for the small hand-full of students who actually stay awake during the lesson is a surface understanding of imagery. I ask of curriculum writers: what is the point of this?

My second qualm with poetry in the current education system is that the poetry students are given to read is typically fairly antiquated. This is not to say that the classics should not be revered as great literature. They are called classics for a reason. But with a world of current living poets who are writing important and relevant work, why wouldn’t we want our students reading stories that they can have a deep, true experience with? Franny Choi, Sarah Kaye, Sam Sax, Aziza Barnes, Denice Frohman, and Lauren Zuniga (to name a few) are creating a living anthology of incredible poetry that is wildly moving and far less esoterically crafted than what is common within current curriculum. We are flooding our students’ homework folders with stacks of poetry that is written for other poets and critics, but there is no greater foreign concept to the average high schooler than a poem that was written for them.