When I first read Marge Piercy’s poem “To be of use,” I fell in love with the last lines: “The pitcher cries for water to carry / and a person for work that is real.” The analogy resonated with me, with the desire I’ve always felt to have a purpose that goes beyond my own pleasure or entertainment. It also resonated with my belief that students crave this too.
I find something surprising and alive in the poem each time I read it, but this year it reminded me of the students I introduce to Poetry Out Loud, a program that “encourages students to learn about great poetry through memorization and recitation.” These students want to do real work, create something with a result, and hammer away at a project they can count as complete. And memorizing poetry is just the thing.
To many students, the work of learning in the language arts classroom can feel amorphous, indefinite, everlasting, but rarely immediate or complete. For me, that’s a joy; I love the endless source material and challenges we can tackle to advance our learning through language study.
For a lot of teenagers, though, language arts classes can be frustratingly open-ended. I hung Roland Barthes’s observation that “literature is the question minus the answer” above the board in my AP English Literature class for the several years I taught it. Every year, I know, there were kids who just wanted to finish something, get a right answer, open and shut the book.
Poetry can quench this thirst yet leave students with lingering wisdom.
Introducing literature and language to students who are not naturally drawn to language arts or who struggle with lower reading skills in a way that meets them where they are can be a tremendous challenge. The reading level or subject matter of a typical informational or literary text may fit just a few learners in a classroom. But poems—which are meant to exist out loud, to be spoken, heard, remembered, and passed on—enter “the heart without the gray matter getting in the way,” in author Brad Kessler’s phrase. And their brevity means that reluctant readers are less likely to feel overwhelmed before they’ve even begun.
I sometimes hear audible groans when I first mention poetry in my classes. Those complaints simultaneously worry, frustrate, and embolden me. I know that performing poetry—as opposed to studying it or reading it silently to analyze it—can have a transformative effect on individuals, and I’m certain that my students will grow more confident, adept at understanding language, and personally invested in the course if we all perform.
5 Cs of Memorizing and Reciting Poetry
Here are my five Cs—things I’ve observed from several years of coaching students in grades 9 to 12 through Poetry Out Loud, from selecting a poem to performing at the state competition:
1. Choice: This is the heart of the exercise. Students learn how to search for poems, and they have complete discretion over the poem they will perform. Students often gravitate to poems that fit their reading level and also match a personal interest or philosophy, which is great. But there are also lots of serendipitous mismatches that end up stretching students’ skills in ways a teacher could not devise.
2. Concrete learning task: Learning just one poem well gives students a finite and concentrated experience with language. Any and every student can learn one poem. I’ve seen students with all manner of challenges get up and do something they thought was impossible, in large part because it involved a single discrete, repeated exercise.
3. Confidence: Recitation is the perfect introduction to public speaking skills. All students need to be able to speak effectively in front of others. Performing a poem is a bit like acting: Students learn elements of physical presence, voice, articulation, speed, volume, and tone without having to present their own work, which is more intimidating for most students.
4. Continuing learning: Students learn a poem that will likely stay with them for years, if not forever. Poems contain mysteries and complexities that reveal themselves slowly—and sometimes even suddenly—over time. I often rehearse previously memorized poems to myself and marvel at their subtle surprises years after I first encountered them.
5. Challenging memory and recall: Students are not asked to memorize much anymore, yet many of them take pleasure in the act of repetition and remembering. They like testing themselves and realizing that they can in fact recall lines. For English language learners, many students with IEPs, autistic students, and other exceptional learners, reciting poetry is an especially powerful way to understand language and build confidence. For our kids who need small victories, mastering one poem is a welcome vindication and relief.
The unglorified labor Piercy references throughout “To be of use” mirrors the learning of a poem: “The thing worth doing well done / has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.” When, after weeks of practicing, the students stand up and for just a few minutes perform with grace, contrary to what many believed they could do, they understand anew that their voices, minds, and bodies were “made to be used” for such art. They “become natives of that element” we call language.