Poetry Baffles Us Both

Activity Being Avoided: dusting, lesson prep
Music In My Head: All Is Now Harmed— Ben Howard
Tea Being Drunk: none. It’s chocolate milk.
Book Being Read: Anthem–Ayn Rand; Steppenwolf–Herman Hesse; Bottle Rocket Hearts–Zoe Whittall

Me: What’s up at school?
Student: [Euphemistic obscenity] poetry.
Me: Which one did you do today?
Student: The one about the monster coming again.

I know that poem. My dad studied it (I know because he gave me his high school poetry anthology); I studied it; I assume every English teacher in Mississauga studied it because it comes up every bloody year in every bloody grade.

Sometimes, the answer is an exciting variation: a road less travelled. The students, naturally, maintain the same expression for both answers.

Sometimes, I get a student whose teacher likes poetry, and maybe I’m even introduced to something new. The student watches me read the poem, and they raise a skeptical eyebrow. “You like this shit?” I do. I like poetry. When I’m able to show them something I like, they’re sometimes convinced to dip a toe in the cold literary pond.

When the appropriate person dies and leaves me in charge of the Ontario English curriculum, not only will I arrange for English classes for people who have no use for literary analysis but I will make poetry analysis optional for teachers who don’t like poetry. You can’t teach the stuff you despise.

I try to get to the students before poetry season begins; it’s nice when they come for tutoring in the summer because I have the time to slip in some of the good stuff and change their perspective a little. I don’t, under any circumstance, start with the one about the monster coming again (Yeats’ The Second Coming, for those of you who have repressed high school English), nor with any of my personal favourites (James Stephens/Ken Sparling). I have a stock selection of tried-and-true gems; I choose something that will, hopefully, please the student in some way.

Nick Bantock’s Averse to Beasts: good for the younger crowd (Grades 7 and 8), students who say they only want to read about animals (yes, I get a lot of those, and I try to suppress my inner psychoanalyst when they say that out loud in public), and people who like language but haven’t yet learned how to play with it.

Tim Burton’s The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy: indeed, grasshopper, this is poetry. It can be analysed. Mummy Boy is a favourite. I use it for ESL as well as English Lit. The illustrations make it.

Archy and Mehitabel poems (surreptitiously transcribed by Don Marquis): We start with the lesson of the moth. As I work mostly with teenagers, I focus on the concept of old people wanting something as badly as the moth wanted to fry himself. They are under the impression that anyone who has survived past the age of thirty must not have any passion or desire, so they feel they can tell me how life should be. We then move on to freddy the rat perishes ‘cause the imagery is truly unparalleled.

My latest discovery is Keaton Henson. I bought a copy of Idiot Verse for myself, but then realised what I had in my hands. I use Grow Up with Me (from which the title of this blog is unapologetically thieved) with older students who need their boats rocked a bit, and Richmond with others. Richmond has, thus far, been a hit with two students who are on the autism spectrum. Grow Up with Me has been honoured with what I would consider the highest praise, despite (or because of?) the expression of consternation she wore: “I really like this poem.”

Rarely, I get a student who likes poetry and I get to let loose. Christian Bök is a good one to help them wrap their minds around the possibilities.

A couple of weeks ago, I was talking with a poet about writing: he believes that short fiction is the most difficult to write; I believe poetry is the most difficult. While I like having limited space in which to play, the demands of poetry are too limiting for my linguistic abilities. I need more room to make mistakes, I suppose, and my poetry therefore sucks. There is no place for an imprecise word in poetry, and the fear of said imprecise word leaves a chilled dread in my belly. When I think of the English teachers who became English teachers because they didn’t know what else to do, and the ones who are bored by poetry, it makes sense that poetry season whips up all the enthusiasm of a damp cardboard box.

Poetry, like all literature, should make you feel like chocolate has been involved.


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