Tapping the power of poetry

Just in time for April – National Poetry Month – my creative writing students have finished up our study of poetry. The creative writing course is designed to give students practice in many different genres – nonfiction essays, short stories, one-act plays, children’s picture books, even online fan fiction.

We end the course with poetry, partly because so many students see it as something sphinxlike and inaccessible, and partly because our last activity of the quarter is a coffeehouse performance, complete with refreshments and the publication of our class poetry anthology.

By coffeehouse I mean my classroom and by refreshments I mean bottled water and clementines and by publication of our class anthology I mean Xeroxed copies stuffed into report folders I bought at the dollar store. No matter. The mood is celebratory.

The students snarf up the clementines and take turns reading their poetry aloud, snapping their fingers to applaud each other. In their evaluation of the nine-weeks-long course, most of the students – almost all of them freshmen – say that poetry is their favorite writing unit, despite their initial skepticism.

That’s not atypicaI. “My experience with poetry in the past was very boring,” one student wrote in his evaluation. “I never got to read the poetry I wanted to. Writing poetry was different. I really felt something when I wrote it. It meant something to me.”

I always begin the poetry unit by having students do something familiar and comfortable; writing descriptive paragraphs.

“Now squeeze out all of the unnecessary words,” I tell them. “Tweak what’s left and you have a poem.”

The students are almost startled at how easily they can conjure up compelling images. Each day I give them another task – another kind of poem to attempt – and every night I read their drafts and make comments, returning them the next day with suggestions for improvement and kudos for their efforts.

Perhaps because the students are used to sharing their lives through their daily writing journals, their poetry is striking for its honesty. They write about the mundane and the profound, about their dreams and their disappointments. Some of them have seen incredible violence up close or have suffered horrific abuse. They’ve survived terrible accidents and grinding poverty, yet they are almost matter-of-fact about the pain in their lives, unsentimental and clear-eyed about what they have endured.

They lay bare all of it in their poetry, and if their voices quaver a little when they read their poems out loud, they also nod in agreement when their classmates step up to share.

In several recent studies, researchers showed that literary fiction helps readers become more empathetic – probably as a result of being able to imagine the circumstances of the characters and to feel for them.

I’m convinced poetry takes that one step further, by issuing an invitation to enter the maze of the poet’s mind and navigate the way to the meaning through the beauty and cleverness of the language.

In other words, reading literature – including poetry – forces us to set aside our individual, limited understanding and see from someone else’s point of view – a skill that would greatly improve the current political discourse, for instance.

This valuable aspect of literature is lost in the data-driven pragmatism of school reform that elevates certain disciplines such as science or technology over the humanities and justifies eliminating art and music and drama to make room for high stakes test prep in too many elementary and middle schools.

But literature – and the liberal arts – have plenty of supporters, too. In his new book, In Defense of a Liberal Education, Time editor-at-large Fareed Zakaria writes, “The central value of a liberal education is that it teaches you how to write, and writing makes you think.”

In a speech last fall, Bard College President Leon Botstein expanded that idea to include all of public education as an important engine for meaningful civic engagement.

“What a child has to learn in school is not only to formulate a personal narrative but also to set it aside; children need to listen, to observe others, and thereby to distinguish their personal narrative from those of others as each individual constructs a role as a citizen … A child needs to learn things that allow him or her to function in a democratic context, to learn to consciously ignore personal self-interest and contemplate the public good. What a common public school ought to teach, therefore, is the capacity for disagreement, contest, and compromise.”

Children who first learn to be part of the community of a diverse classroom – trusting their peers and teachers and sharing their ideas and even their poetry with them – leave school ready to take their place as empathetic, thoughtful citizens in the community at large.

Kay McSpadden is a high school English teacher in York, S.C. Email: