April is National Poetry Month, a celebration begun 20 years ago by the Academy of American Poets to bring more awareness to the pleasures of reading and writing poetry. If you’re wondering why poetry deserves its own special month for a public relations boost, you might be like some of my students who look at poetry askance.
“What’s the point of saying what everyone already knows?” a student once complained about poetry. At the time I was too flustered to say anything more than, “Because poets say it better.”
That’s not wrong, exactly. We read poetry precisely because it does say what everyone knows, but it also elevates our common human experiences to the realm of literature.
The skeptics aside, the majority of my students like poetry, or at least tolerate it. Even my class of non-college bound juniors – mostly country boys – who qualify as reluctant readers are good sports.
I wasn’t surprised when they enjoyed John Smith’s fanciful misadventures in Jamestown or Jack London’s brutal misadventures in the Yukon. Adventure stories seem tailor made for students who spend their weekends hunting and fishing.
But I kept holding my breath when we read poetry – unfairly, as it turns out. Anne Bradstreet’s “Upon The Burning of Our House” morphed into a spirited discussion about colonial life, the roles of women and the idea of an unreliable narrator.
They didn’t blink when we paired William Cullen Bryant’s “Thanatopsis” with an essay about being made from “star stuff.”
Nature imagery and Longfellow? A piece of cake. They wrote essays about transcendentalism and Emerson that made me proud.
I shouldn’t have been surprised that they’ve taken to poetry. I’ve seen several of them reading popular young adult novels written entirely in verse – Ellen Hopkins’ “Crank” and Kwame Alexander’s “Crossover,” for instance.
Still, I waited for them to balk when I assigned each student a poem by Emily Dickinson to explain to their classmates. I allotted an entire class period for them to prepare, but they assured me they didn’t need it.
“So tell me,” I quizzed Brandon before he made his presentation, “who is this narrow fellow in the grass? What does the persona mean when she says she never met this fellow/attended or alone/without a tighter breathing/and zero at the bone?”
“I think it means she hates snakes,” Brandon said with the confidence of someone intimately familiar with the outdoors, “and when she sees one she feels cold all over, but I can’t imagine why. Most snakes won’t hurt you.”
The rest of the class was just as on point. One by one they stood up and explained “Because I could not stop for death” and “The Soul selects her own Society” and 17 more poems while their classmates dutifully wrote notes. No one balked or whimpered or questioned why we were learning so many Emily Dickinson poems. Instead, they seemed proud. Later when Brandon saw a 50-point essay question about Dickinson’s themes and style on the unit test, he grinned and said, “I got this!”
Emily Dickinson once wrote, “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry.” Celebrate Poetry Month this year by picturing a teenaged boy who interrupts his ordinary daydreams of cars and baseball to stand nervously before his classmates, reading a poem about a snake, reveling in the words of a woman long dead, making all of us shiver with delight.
Kay McSpadden teaches high school English at York Comprehensive High School. Email: email@example.com.