by Ron Hayes
Very near to where I live there also lives a small, horrible, twisted, stunted, shrivel of a brain that happens, sadly, to be attached to a state legislator named Brad Roae. This tragedy of grey matter recently gave voice to what I fear as both a poet and an educator. In an email discussing the state budget, Mr. Roae, who serves on Pennsylvania’s Finance and Human Services Committees, proposed ending funding opportunities for a small, specific group of college students. He said the state had to look at doing away with higher-education grants for “students studying poetry or some other Pre-Walmart major.”
Ouch. I guess we poets really put a drag on an economy, huh?
Now, in fairness, I don’t mean to politicize this site or even this post. I merely make use of this small-minded comment to frame our conversation for today: In a world where the volume of our knowledge is increasing exponentially, I wonder if there is an attendant devaluation of certain kinds of knowledge, knowledge that can be viewed as archaic and esoteric. It calls to mind a new adage I learned recently in talking to a former professor about the STEM vs. STEAM debate. (In education, STEM refers to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics; proponents of a well-rounded college education like to insist on adding the “A” for “Arts.”) The adage to which I refer asserts that having the knowledge necessary to, say… construct a nuclear weapon is a great example of a “STEM” concentration on learning; having wisdom enough to know whether or not one should use that bomb is a great understanding of how arts and humanities contribute to “STEAM.” As I see it, the analogy works here because poetry (like all art forms, from literature to sculpture) deepens our appreciation for the human condition and opens us to an appreciation for another’s joy and pain and suffering and success. My concern has been that, with all of the ridiculous clamoring for high-stakes testing and the posturing behind “accountability metrics” for our fourth, sixth, eighth, and eleventh graders, our society has lost sight of the value of showing young people that they don’t need to measure the angle of a moonrise to appreciate the beauty of a sunset.
So I started asking people near me who teach, and then I reached out to people far away who teach, and then I asked some people I don’t even know who teach: What’s the state of poetry in your place of education? Their responses were encouraging.
In a brief nationwide survey, teacher respondents overwhelmingly verified that poetry still has a place in modern day classrooms. My fear was that less than half of respondents would reply to say that poetry was either optional or omitted from their curricula, but only 23% of teachers who responded said that poetry was not formally included in their proscribed curriculum. Perhaps even more encouraging was that this omission was ameliorated by teachers being free to add supplemental work in poetry if they so desired. In short, of the schools across the country accounted for in my survey, virtually all of them view poetry as important enough to continue teaching it to our young people.
In a follow up question, I asked respondents to estimate how well they felt their individual schools and/or school districts valued the teaching of poetry. Less than 8% of teachers believe that their school or district values poetry “not at all,” which was initially encouraging. Unfortunately, however not one teacher reported that their school or district valued poetry os highly that an entire class or curriculum was dedicated to teaching it. This means that, for American high school or middle school students, the opportunity to spend a quarter, a semester, or even an entire school year studying poetry does not exist until he or she reaches college. Still, nearly half, forty six percent, claimed that poetry was included in “some” lessons where they teach, and another 27% reported that poetry was optional or supplementary to their English curricula. Perhaps we should be encouraged that at least three-quarters of our schools find value in exposing students to poetry, but I’ll admit that I find these numbers disheartening.
In our next segment, I’ll take a look at student responses to my survey on the state of poetry in our schools, but to close out this initial segment, I’ll leave you with this: In answering the question, “As a student, do you feel poetry should be an important part of your education in middle and high school, or is it something better left for college,” I was profoundly encouraged by the responses from our young people. One in particular sticks out:
Poetry is an essential element in the learning process for any individual at any grade level.
Out of the mouths of babes…
See you next time.
Craft Series: 30 Books in 30 Days with Anna Rose Welch
Bio: Anna Rose Welch is a violinist and poet living in Erie, PA. She was the winner of the 2016 Alice James Award. Her first collection of poems, We, the Almighty Fires, will be available in 2018. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Best New Poets 2014, The Kenyon Review Online, The Paris-American, Guernica, Crab Orchard Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly, The Adroit Journal, and other publications.
Creating Poetry by John Drury
This was my first craft book as a young poet, which was introduced to me in my intermediate poetry workshop by my mentor at Allegheny College. This is a great guide for those just starting out and trying their hand at writing poems. For one, the first chapter is about getting started with the writing process, highlighting how certain writers have tackled the process. (One of my favorites is the reference to the German poet Schiller who kept a basket of rotting apples under his desk…) In his easy, personable writing style, Drury introduces poems focusing on the smallest details — the way the first line can be structured and is supposed to operate, how a poet should read and what they should pay attention to in each poem. He even includes a list of activities to get the poet reading. The book is broken into chapters that discuss and clearly define poetic terminology and techniques, and the different forms poems can take (prose, villanelles, pantoums, etc.). Each chapter ends with lists of poems and writers that exemplify these techniques, as well as prompts to get you trying these forms and techniques yourself.
In the Palm of Your Hand: The Poets Portable Workshop by Steve Kowit
This was one of the books I selected as a required textbook when I taught creative writing. The class was for beginning writers and it covered poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. Much like Drury, this book walks a poet through the technical aspects of writing poems: the line/linebreaks, the forms, rhyming, the importance of image, etc. It even dedicates a chapter to the concept of the “awful poem.” Included in this chapter (and each chapter) are exercises that include sample poems and instructions on how to approach reading it or critiquing it. What I particularly like about this text though is that it addresses some of the subject matter poets can write about, including memory, photography (or other ekphrastic work), myth, cut-out/whiteout/erasure poems, etc. My favorite unit was that on image entitled “Lonely as a Leftover Thumb.” One of the exercises in this unit included several sentences containing blanks for the reader to insert an object to learn how to craft imaginative similes. The second half of the exercise provides objects and instructs the writer to construct descriptions for these objects, for instance a rundown house or a particular potted plant. I also feel as though the exercises can range from simple, much like the ones listed above, to more advanced and help a writer create a large body of text from which they can whittle down several good lines or images.
The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux
This was another required text for the creative writing class I taught. This was my favorite book to teach from (and learn from myself) because of the way it was organized. The book first covers how to go about writing about some of the most popular themes poets address, including family, death and grief, the erotic, place, and the self (also known as the shadow). It also provides short units on self-doubt, writing in the electronic age, and insights on how to submit for publication. My favorite part of this book however, is the exercises. Though exercises are not foreign in any craft book, these are simple and instructive to ensure the writing you end up with is specific. For instance, two of my favorite prompts include: Collect images from a magazine, and address the people or objects portrayed. Give them a voice. Another good one is: describe a pair of shoes in such a way that will make the writer think of death. Do not mention death in the poem. (It might be best to set some other limitations for yourself as well, avoiding typical abstract words that suggest pain or sadness (darkness, blackness, suffering, sadness, brokenness, etc.) In the line break unit, the activity provides a block of prose and invites the writer to break it into lines and see how the text is affected by shorter and longer lines, and what each line can mean on its own depending on where the breaks fall.
The Poetics of Space: The Classic Look at How We Experience Intimate Places by Gaston Bachelard
This book is not a technique book, per se, but it was introduced to me in my first workshop in graduate school. The book contains many longwinded, philosophical ramblings, but Bachelard’s ramblings are magic, eye-opening, and creative regardless. In each chapter, Bachelard addresses the spaces we come across regularly and the impact they have on the construction of ourselves. The book discusses how a space can define us and relate to our body, as well as how our perceptions challenge and shape the different nooks in our house’s attic or hallway closet. There are chapters on drawers, chests, and wardrobes; nests; shells; and the dialectics on outside and inside. For those looking to challenge their perceptions of the everyday objects, walls, and spaces that surround us daily, this is the book for you.