Why Teach Poetry?

Why read it, for that matter? Andrew Simmons tackles this question in The Atlantic. It’s a great article, worth reading and rereading and thinking about. While the article is thorough and nuanced, this paragraph roughly encapsulates his answer:

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.

I’m all for reasons to teach and read poetry. I appreciate Simmons anecdotal evidence, too. It’s always helpful to see how teachers put theory into practice. But for myself, this question and it’s fill-in-the blank cousins (“Why is teaching any aspect of the Arts or Humanities important?”) don’t actually change anything. Talking about why poetry or anything else should be studied is useful to a point, but the thing that changes people is putting it into practice. People embrace poetry when they feel embraced by poetry. When readers (or any audience of any media) connect with art, that art then has value. But unless and until that connection occurs, all the reasons in the world won’t change anyone’s mind. The way to convince people of the value of poetry is to have them read it–lots of it– and see for themselves.

And so, a poem:

The Promise
by Jane Hirschfield

Stay, I said
to the cut flowers.
They bowed
their heads lower.

Stay, I said to the spider,
who fled.

Stay leaf.
It reddened,
embarrassed for me and itself.

Stay, I said to my body.
It sat as a dog does,
obedient for a moment,
soon starting to tremble.

Stay, to the earth
of riverine valley meadows,
of fossiled escarpments,
of limestone and sandstone.
It looked back
with a changing expression,
in silence.

Stay, I said to my loves.
Each answered,
Always.

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2 thoughts on “Why Teach Poetry?

  1. I love this post. Your perspective also speaks to the difficulty I find in trying to “sell” students on the benefits of studying poetry and fiction. For many of them the course requirement will be pure drudgery unless they find a text with which they truly (and naturally) connect.

    1. And finding poetry for students to connect with really requires a kind of magic, don’t you think? It’s so far beyond our control, I think. The best we can do is throw a lot of poetry at them and hope something sticks.

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