Literacy

Encouraging a Love of Poetry

An argument for appreciating poems as moments of beauty in class, in addition to teaching poetry analysis.
Photograph of an open book of poetry shot over the shoulder of a person with long hair
©Twenty20/@kingdomkarl

A poem is a lightweight thing, a beautiful construction that can, despite its lightness, carry remarkable burdens. Poet Mahmoud Darwish imagined this paradox as “the butterfly’s burden.”

When you consider that meditation works similarly—that the tiniest of phrases, matched with the movement of our breath, can bring remarkable calmness and clarity to a burdened life—the power of poems begins to make sense.

The best poems often work in the same way as these meditative phrases. They match speech. They match breath. They offer rhythms that are pleasing to the psyche. In this way, poems can function like little bits of magic or lullaby.

If we doubt the power of poems, we have only to remember history. For instance, under a repressive regime, the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova could not publish her poems. So for 30 years her friends memorized the poems she penned and then quickly burned. They stored her poetic rhythms of hope deep in their minds until the poems could be published.

The memorization of Akhmatova’s poems united her and her friends, and when the poems were published, they united a wider circle of readers. To this day, those poems are treasured and shared by the Russian people.

Giving Poem Treasures to Students

The journalist Jaya Savige has said of one poem, “In a mere two sentences, these lines haul substantial freight.” As teachers we are often tempted (or asked) to make a full accounting of the freight through detailed analysis.

Imagine, for a moment, doing the same to a butterfly. The beauty would be lost in the dissection. And it would kill the butterfly.

Now, it’s true that studying the intricacies of something can deepen our appreciation of it, so I’m not saying we should never analyze poems. But I am saying we might find it more powerful to treat poems as treasures—both personal and communal.

Four Ways to Treat Poems as Treasures

1. Read a poem a day. The best writers I know read poetry. The best of the best often read a poem a day. This helps put treasures of interesting images and strong cadences into their minds, where the words and rhythms inform their prose.

Reading a poem a day also helps us find poetic gems we might decide to keep or share. In the classroom, it’s simple to start the day with a poem—no analysis, just a shared experience that can make students better writers and maybe carry a burden that day.

Where to start? Try:

  • Poems from favorite books, like the sonnets and ballads in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings
  • Collections of poetry online, like the one at PoetryFoundation.org
  • Collections like Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years or The Making of a Poem

2. Keep a poetry journal. Megan Willome, author of The Joy of Poetry, recommends keeping poetry journals as a way to collect, process, and celebrate poems. Every year, she begins a new journal right after Thanksgiving. It becomes a history of the year in poems. When the next Thanksgiving rolls around, she brews a cup of tea and reads this history before starting a new journal.

While it’s worth reading all of her thoughts about how to keep a poetry journal, here are some high points:

  • Read a poem silently, then aloud, and copy all or part of it into a journal
  • Note what you liked, what captured your imagination, what amused you, what surprised you
  • Consider what the poem reminded you of—a memory, a song, a book, the sound of a particular person’s voice

While students can do this individually in personal journals, it can also be done as a community, on a Poetry Journal Wall that everyone adds poem quotes and thoughts to over the months. A reading celebration, with tea or cookies, could wrap up the year.

3. Commit poetry to memory. Because it’s a marvelous mental exercise, memorizing poems can help students increase their ability to focus—a quality that undergirds achievement across many subjects. Committing poetry to memory is also a chance to really experience poems and hide them inside as a treasure that’s always accessible during moments of boredom or emotional need.

You can find poetry memorization materials here, including fun poetry badges to celebrate memory milestones.

4. Celebrate holidays with poetry. Besides participating in National Poetry Month, you can make poetry a delightful community activity by celebrating Random Acts of Poetry Day or by sharing or reading out loud poems linked to national holidays on those days.

Consider teaming up with local organizations to create community connections. For instance, the 7th Grade Poetry Foundation has partnered with schools to bring student poetry to public employees on Random Acts of Poetry Day.

Many students lose a love for poetry—or never find that love to begin with—when they encounter poems only through analysis. The treasures of poetry are too great to let that happen. Jewels can be carried on light wings, if we let them be.