Last week, while reconnecting over pizza with someone with whom I’d gone to high school, I found myself suddenly enmeshed in a debate about the utility of teaching poetry in the classroom. We had been talking about what we hope to do with our careers in the future, and my friend, who was blissfully unaware of what he was getting himself into at the time—began to ask me about my writing. Why had I decided that I like it so much? What made me so sure that I want to center my life around it? Why do I want to teach poetry someday?
I began to explain to him how much the idea of building opportunities for people to encounter poetry on an everyday basis—in the bus terminal, on the subway, in a store window, on the radio, in their Facebook newsfeed, tucked away between the salt and pepper shakers on a cafeteria table, or of course, in the classroom (whether Composition or Creative Writing)—excites me. Ideas about ways to get people to “bump into” and experience more poetry literally keep me up at night. They make me fidget in meetings and cause me to take too long in the shower. They make me zone out during sermons in church and distract me while I’m grading. I shake when I talk about them.
“It troubles me,” I explained, rattling the ice around in my glass, “that we don’t see more poetry in the real world, or even in the English classroom, where most people encounter literature for the first time. Teachers are often a little afraid of it, and so students become very afraid of it.”
My lunch companion was nonplussed. “But prose is a more practical model for student writing,” he objected, “so why should there be more poetry in the classroom?”
Well, in that case, why should we teach Mark Twain (parts of which are written in dialect)? Or Shakespeare (with its slippery Elizabethan speech)? Or even Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams (both of whom wrote for the stage), for that matter? If the place of the English classroom is only to provide “practical” models for student writing, then the idea of teaching literature at all becomes questionable. And yet, most people would agree that including literature in the high school classroom is important. Literature provides a compass for us, a “window” (as one of my own high school English teachers used to say) by which we can practice empathy and imagination. It is a beacon, a stepping stone, a map, a boat, an interview, a mask, a portrait, a question, a shovel, a vision, a road, a challenge to ourselves as human beings. Young people need literature—because literature gives us words and paradigms by which to conceive of ourselves and of others; because literature helps us to grow.
So why teach poetry? Because poetry is literature—and poetry is necessary.