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National Poetry Month Teacher Challenge

April 1, 2011

If you are reading this it seems a safe bet that you know April 1st begins National Poetry Month. (There is possibly some supreme irony in starting National Poetry Month in the United States on April Fool’s Day, but we’ll let that slide for now.) It might also be a reasonable wager that you are aware of the various methods the Academy of American Poets has of promoting poetry to the wider society during this month in particular, but other months in general.

One of those methods is an emailed poem-a-day. First limited to April, then expanded this year to every day, this service seems a different poem emailed to you every morning. April poems in the past have highlighted new poetry books, but the poems pull from the Academy’s extensive database, introducing readers to the well-known and obscure poetry of well-known and obscure poets.

For several years, I have used April and poem-a-day as a way to introduce poetry to whatever class I am teaching. For me, these are typically writing classes, so it might seem justified—but integrating a discussion of an Anne Waldman poem into a lecture on research methods isn’t as bridgeable as you might suspect. But then, analysis isn’t the main point.

If there is a projector in the room, I put the emailed poem up for the whole class to read. I ask for a volunteer, but if no one feels brave or silly enough, I read it. I often haven’t read the poems in advance—especially if it a class that meets before breakfast—and alert the students to this. I am as new to the ride as they are.

We read the poem just to read it. I don’t ask that analyze or offer an answer to the poem. We don’t even need to discuss it. The point of the experience is just experience, just to enjoy, or not enjoy, or find lines startling or insightful or want to know more like it because of the poem—the way I and I suspect many readers and writers of poetry started, innocently, without our critical, cutting eyes.

As often as not, the students want to discuss the poems. They desire knowledge about the poet or images or line breaks as if they’ve been deprived of some secret, possibly illicit thing, and are thrilled to see it finally in front of them.

Discussion has to be curtailed by me so we can return to methods of research or proper MLA citation—quite a let down after reading about an apparently private dream, or an unexplainable sound, or sexual metaphors so slightly concealed they press against the page and gyrate in the lines letters that fit them together.

The students sense something missing from their everyday has been delivered to them, and they usually want to go on opening the package.

It isn’t every poem and every class that responds in this way. Sometimes a morning class will vote down the same poem that the evening class will enjoy and vice versa. But who responds is always amazing: the most unexpected students, those who pull Bs or try to write well, but have other obligations, priorities. These athletes or fidgety quiet ones or stoned loners typically take to the poetry with surreal interest. These are overlooked students, or those who feel pulled by other, more mainstream activities. I like to imagine our ten to fifteen minute talk continues for them, that day and later, that they continue to see poetry and feel comfortable in its presence, and defend their interest as part of the purpose of all this to begin with.

Therefore, I encourage every teacher I know to engage students in this way for at least this month. Reading a poem each class not to wring meaning from obscure words, but to enjoy language, its movement, its mystery, the way letters can be placed together and spark.


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