The Challenges and Joys of Teaching Poetry
GrubStreet instructor Ben Berman discusses the challenges and joys of teaching poetry, as he prepares to lead professional development for teachers this summer.
This summer, I am very excited for the opportunity to lead some professional development for teachers through Mass Poetry. However, one of my rituals –whenever I begin preparing to teach anything – is to immediately doubt everything I know. I hear the word qualifications and think not accomplishments but reservations. And so even though I have been both a teacher and a poet for close to twenty years now, I would like to publicly admit that I find poetry very difficult to teach.
Poems can be hard to understand if we’re not used to reading them. Poems can be hard to understand even if we are used to reading them. They often require multiple readings and our undivided attention. Instead of compelling characters and dramatic storylines, they offer us interior landscapes and surprising associative leaps, words playing off one another in charged but subtle ways.
Then comes the challenge of finding the right poems for a particular class – poems that will speak to their emotional and philosophical concerns, poems that will both trouble and console them. Not to mention the difficulty of fostering an environment where the classroom truly feels like a community, where everyone feel connected, supported and challenged in order to take the creative risks to share their work (in its many phases) with others.
You can teach craft, of course, through exercises that focus on imagery or musicality, or by tracing how a poem moves or the relationship between content and form. And you can certainly offer some context behind various movements within the poetry world – to discuss Modernism, say, or Imagism or New Formalism before looking at individual poems. And it is always helpful, as well, to discuss poetic temperaments and the importance, say, of tolerating ambiguity and embracing contradictions.
And when the stars do align teaching poetry can feel truly transformative.
I once had a student spend an entire year drafting and revising a single poem on being bi-racial in the echo form (where the final word of each line is echoed and those echoes create an entirely new narrative.) It was a remarkable display of content working with form, as she explored the complexities of race and identity.
Another time, a teenager who was sick with cancer wrote an emulation of Nazim Hikmet’s Things I Didn’t Know I Loved, cataloguing everything she, too, loved despite being ill. She held herself up on crutches as she read us her poem, which was full of such grace and humor. And a year later, when the minister read her poem at her funeral, I felt so grateful to hear her voice one more time.
And there are all the small moments, too – a student giggling to himself after writing: “I love the uncomfortable silence/ between lightening and thunder;” a teenage boy realizing with great delight that he could turn an innocuous phrase into a suggestive double entendre with a simple line break; and all the times that I’ve sat back amazed by the sudden intimacy of a poetry workshop, of seeing strangers so engaged and invested in each other’s work.
Poetry has always felt incredibly personal to me. I wake up well before dawn every morning to read and write poems for reasons that I’m not sure I could fully articulate. I often have no idea what I’m doing or why I’m doing it – and that’s what makes it exciting. I sit down with half-formed ideas and tangled feelings and a cup or two of coffee, and, well, I’m not really sure what happens after that. It’s not exactly great fodder for teaching.
But I think that in my ideal world, teaching poetry would feel something like this.
When my older daughter was in preschool, there was one morning when she had “a really bad stomachache” and “really needed” to stay home, which meant spending the day with me while I taught some Creative Writing classes over at Brookline High School. She was thrilled about this until she actually got to the school and saw how big the students were. She clung to me after that, her head buried in my chest, and refused to let me put her down.
By the second class, she’d relaxed enough to watch some YouTube videos on my computer, while I “taught my lesson.” And as she grew less and less self-aware, she started turning up the volume on the computer, singing along to her favorite Hairspray songs and dancing in her seat.
My students quickly figured out that if my daughter caught them staring at her, she would shrink back behind the screen. So instead they snuck glances, not so much listening as overhearing, as her shyness gave way to joy and she crooned: Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now.
I want teaching poetry to feel like that.
So that for a brief while a classroom feels like an incredibly human place – filled with love and vulnerability, fear and laughter and song – so that my students and I can just kind of smile at one another, knowing that there’s nothing to say and that there is great weight to that kind of silence.
* An earlier version of this post appeared on the Mass Poetry website.
Ben Berman’s first book, Strange Borderlands, won the 2014 Peace Corps Award for Best Book of Poetry and was a finalist for the Massachusetts Book Awards. His second collection, Figuring in the Figure, was recently selected as a Must-Read by the Mass Center for the Book. And his new book, Then Again, came out last November. He has received awards from the New England Poetry Club and fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and Somerville Arts Council. He teaches at Brookline High School and lives in the Boston area with his wife and two daughters. www.ben-berman.comSee other articles by Ben Berman