My high school English teachers were fabulous, especially Mrs. Holinde, my Junior and Senior English teacher. She is one of the reasons I am an English teacher. It's funny, though. I don't really remember studying poetry in her class. I remember reading short stories and novels. She made them come alive for me. I wept at the end of A Tale of Two Cities. But poetry? No real memory of it.
I did study poetry in college...no way around it with an English major...but I didn't love it. We talked a lot about rhyme scheme and meter. Bo-ring.
I didn't love poetry until I had to teach it to 7th graders 13 years ago in my first teaching job. I taught at an inner city middle school where most of my students were reading well below grade level. Approaching poetry as an academic exercise with those kids would have been the kiss of death. I had to make poetry accessible, a difficult task since I didn't find it accessible. I had a list of "the dead white guys" in the curriculum at the time, but what I needed was a poet that mattered to them. I went online and discovered Tupac's poetry. I've been introducing students to poetry with him ever since. The kids can't discount poetry when one of their heroes clearly valued it. I've purchased The Rose that Grew from Concrete three times because it keeps "disappearing" out of my classroom.
From Tupac, we hit Langston Hughes, Nikki Giovanni, and Maya Angelou. Then I sneak in some Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. Paul Laurence Dunbar, then some Robert Frost. I found a book of poetry in Spanish with the English translation across the page. We read it in both languages. Dylan Thomas, ee cummings, William Carlos Williams, T.S. Eliot...they all get their turn.
I've grown to love poetry with my students. As a writer, I've learned that every word has to count. In poetry, that idea is even more intense and condensed. Every word, every breath between words has to count. I read something new now, and I'm blown away by a poet's ability to capture the essence of something in a single word or phrase. I encourage my students to memorize a poem. I've memorized a few along the way, and sometimes those poems come back to me when I need them.
I'm going to end this post with a poem I've recently given to someone close to me.
William Ernst Henley
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.