Public schools should teach contemporary poetry

By William Brown Nov 8, 2019

The way poetry is taught as part of the public education system curriculum is deeply flawed.

While there are many problems with how poetry is taught, one prominent issue stems from the way it is seen within the curriculum.

In the current educational system, poetry is presented as something that should be taught because it is part of the literary canon, not because it is enjoyable or valuable.

This is demonstrated by the tendency of schools to require students to be introduced to poetry through figures whose language is inaccessible to the common reader, let alone the majority of high-schoolers.

The problem is then worsened by the emphasis that the canonical approach to teaching poetry places upon deciphering what a poem’s meaning is, often to the exclusion of other aspects of poetry.

Based upon the view that poetry is important to teach for understanding the literary canon, the entire system confuses students due to unfamiliar language.

In order to discuss the meaning of a poem at length, classrooms force students to spend even more time decoding the language that has already alienated them, making the entire process of learning about poetry frustrating.

I remember in my junior year of high school, we were asked to read John Donne’s “Holy Sonnet 10.”

This poem’s language proved so outdated and difficult to interpret that an entire class period was dedicated to figuring out what the poem was saying in each line.

While this poem now proves much easier for me to comprehend, many of my classmates at the time had trouble determining how the lines fed into each other.

Donne’s poetry in many cases proves difficult to comprehend because of its archaic terminology.

Donne often utilizes various religious, scientific and literary allusions that would be generally understood by his intended audience of wealthy 17th century Englishmen, but not by the average student today.

For instance, “Holy Sonnet 10” concludes “One short sleep past, we wake eternally/ And death shall be no more. Death, thou shalt die.”

This refers not only to the belief that there is an afterlife in general, but rather to the specific Christian doctrine that every person’s body will be resurrected, thus eliminating the concept of physical death.

Donne is undoubtedly an influential poet, but to have poems such as “Holy Sonnet 10” serve as a student’s introduction to poetry only makes it likely that the student will come to dislike poetry.

Students’ experiences with poetry have been defined by a struggle to understand what the words of a poem mean.

This makes it difficult to enjoy an older poem’s language, combined with the way in which a poem’s language is presented as something that gets in the way of understanding the poem itself.

The student’s experience with the poetry’s linguistics is that of frustration at one’s inability to easily interpret the language.

The presentation of a poem’s language as a problem to be solved simultaneously also inhibits a student’s ability to enjoy a poem for its images, its rhythm and any other elements the poem possesses.

Everything other than a poem’s meaning is reduced to passing comments about how a poem is in iambic pentameter or how a certain image can reinforce the poem’s meaning.

While the meaning of a poem is absolutely something that should be discussed, this view of the literary canon portrays poetry more as wisdom passed down from one’s ancestors that must be interpreted, rather than something that can be enjoyed.

My alternative would be to ease students into an understanding of what poetry is by presenting them with contemporary poetry that is more accessible than Donne’s poems.

By discussing poetry that is more understandable and relatable to a contemporary audience, students will find poetry less frustrating to deal with and encounter poetry they legitimately enjoy.

The canonical works can still be taught, but should be eased into the classroom by discussing poetry that is closer to contemporary poets.

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