More (eating) poetry, please. by Emily Meixner
When my son was in kindergarten, he and his classmates regularly read and talked about poetry. They shared poems in their morning meetings, they illustrated poems as they were learning to recognize sight words, they made paper pockets to carry the poems they wanted to share on Poem In Your Pocket Day. They ingested poems the way they ate snacks: hungrily, messily, happily. One of my favorite entries in my son’s writer’s notebook from that year is this illustration of William Carlos Williams’s “This is Just to Say.” There’s something utterly joyful about that many ice cubes and plums.
At the end of the year when I asked what his favorite poem was, he was still hooked on Williams. “The Red Wheelbarrow,” he said. I didn’t push for justification, but I imagine that there was something about that poem he innately understood. So much does depend on a red wheelbarrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens. Totally.
As a result of this immersion in poetry, he often spontaneously wrote poems. One I still keep in my office because, like the drawing of the plums and ice cubes, it fills me with joy. (Translation:) “The Snow Man.” As you make a snowman, the snow falls down. And in summer, it all melts down.
As a parent who is also an English teacher and teacher educator, I loved watching him compose. His poetry was a perfect example of how developing readers and writers replicate what they know, how they can’t help but see and describe the world in ways that feel familiar to them. For him, this meant unconsciously channeling Williams as he wrote. For that poor snowman, so much really did depend on the precipitation.
In 5th grade, his class decided that Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover was hands-down their favorite read-aloud of the year. My son was so enraptured with the book that he immediately read Booked, another of Alexander’s verse novels. I can still remember him lying on the couch, calling to me in the kitchen, “Mom! You have to listen to this poem!” At 10, he wanted to read poetry out loud to someone because it was just that good. He also wrote poems that year, poems “inspired” by Alexander’s book, but they were assigned this time and, as a result, not spontaneous. Were they still fun for him to write? Yes, but they were required and graded and some of them were based on fill-in-the-part-of-speech formulas. He did produce these two, though, which (like Alexander’s originals) have some life in them.
My son is in 7th grade now and when I asked, he said he doesn’t currently have a favorite poet or poem. He’s a reader, but poetry is no longer a regular part of his academic diet; in his day-to-day experience, it’s not an opening or a welcome. It’s not a window, a worldview, or a way of building community. It’s not a snack. It’s often not even on the menu. I anticipate that when he does encounter poetry from this point on, it will be embedded in a poetry unit of some sort and he’ll be asked to study rather than savor it. Reading and writing poetry will become serious work.
I hope I’m wrong about this, but when I talk with my own students, college students and future English teachers, about poetry, too many of them scrunch up their faces in ways that suggest that their recent experiences reading and writing poetry have been anything but joyful. When I ask the students in my children’s and young adult literature classes how many of them seek out poetry to read or have read novels in verse, they look at each other, hoping someone might raise a hand and save them from my sad face. And when I tell the students in my writing methods class that they’ll be writing poetry in the safety of their writer’s notebooks, the apprehensive glances almost always outweigh the enthusiastic nods.
Just last week I surveyed my reading methods class to see how many of their cooperating teachers were celebrating National Poetry Month. The results weren’t good, so we spent much of that period brainstorming ways to bring poetry into our classes and into our students’ lives. The list they compiled was impressive:
- Start every class period with a poem
- Switch up your book talks with “poem talks”
- Read picture books about poetry and poets
- Participate in “Poetry In Your Pocket Day”
- Survey the faculty and staff about their favorite poems and create a display
- Put together a display of poetry books in your classroom or in the library
- Watch poems performed or read
- Pick a poem and memorize it
- Organize a Poetry Out Loud competition
- Create Cin-E poems
- Read a poem every day as a part of the announcements (thanks to Billy Collins and Poetry 180 for this idea)
- Create videos of people reciting their favorite poems (thanks to Robert Pinsky’s “Favorite Poem Project” for this idea)
- Invite a local poet to speak to or video chat with students
- Post a new poem every day on the school (or teacher’s) website
- Use poems as mentor texts for student writing
- Do poetry exchanges with other students
- Set up a magnetic poetry station
- Act out poems
- Compose a poetry biography or a personal poetry timeline
- Illustrate a favorite poem
- Create blackout poetry
- Rewrite a poem into another poetic forms (a sonnet → a haiku)
I’m sure there were other ideas I’m forgetting.
All isn’t lost. My students did create that list. And last semester, my children’s literature students were blown away by Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X. As they talked about the book, they were like my son on the couch: “Did you see this one?! Look what she’s doing here!” Two book club groups had the same response to Jason Reynold’s Long Way Down. (That book also elicited several “Whaaaaaaat??s”) My students didn’t love every poem, but they loved enough of them that the energy they brought to our discussions was palpable. Former students have had similar experiences with Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust, Thanhha Lai’s Inside Out and Back Again, and (like my son’s class) Alexander’s The Crossover.
I know there are amazing K-12 teachers for whom poetry is essential to their instruction. And yet, somewhere along the line, as students move through school, we’re losing poetry as something necessary, as something that sustains us, and as something we need to make sense of the world. I don’t know how to solve this problem, but I offer this reflection and my students’ list as a possible starting point.
We need to put more poetry on the menu. More (eating) poetry, please.
Emily Meixner is an Associate Professor of English at The College of New Jersey in Ewing, NJ, where she teaches courses on secondary ELA pedagogy and young adult literature. She just devoured The Proper Way to Meet A Hedgehog and Other How-To Poems by Paul Janeczko and is currently gnawing on Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram. You can follow her and hear more about what’s she’s reading, eating, and teaching on Twitter @EsMteach.