Why Most High School Students Don’t Like Poetry

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Like the majority of North Americans, high school students don’t like poetry.  When I teach my first lesson on poetry,  I confront students with this fact, encourage them to be honest, to raise their hands if they don’t like poetry, and all but one or two hands tentatively rise.

I ask them why, and they reply “it’s hard” or “too abstract” or that “teachers read too much into it and that’s off putting.”

I say, “But you used to like it.  You liked Dr. Seuss.  See if you like this poem.  Then I read them “Hand, Hand Fingers Thumb,” my older son Harrison’s favorite book when he was a preschooler.

Because the illustrations constitute an important facet to the poem’s overall effect, I’m going to provide a video and then read it myself to produce a very different vibe, the one I create in the classroom.

Okay, hit the arrow to get my rendition.

 

Usually, I receive a rousing round of applause, but then I ruin it for them.  I say, “See, you enjoyed that, but you didn’t get its deeper meaning.  Let me explain.

“The poem is actually an apocalyptic history of life on the planet that incorporates both  Hebraic and Hellenic myths denoting the fall of man that culminates in a population explosion that eventually kills all primates on the planet.”

“What?”  they say.

“Listen. At first the monkeys are happy in their prelapsarian state, enjoying music and each other’s company until

handhandfingersinterior1

“Here the apple represents the Eden myth’s rendition of the Fall, and the plum represents the Greek concept of the worship of Dionysius, the Greek god of wine.  Perkins is using what is called poetic license, substituting one purple fruit for another for the sake of rhyme.

“It’s no accident that in the very next stanza after the chorus, disease enters the rapidly fading paradise of the monkeys’ world.

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“As civilization advances, instrumentation becomes more sophisticated; banjos and fiddles augment the simple jungle drums at the beginning.  An unabated and unsustainable population explosion ensues, choking the planet.

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“Hence the diminuendo at the end

dum dum

“This is an obvious allusion to TS Eliot’s “The Hollow Men,”  its last lines stating that the world will end “not with a bang but a whimper.”

Some kids look generally puzzled, others sport wry smiles.  I take my tongue out of my cheek and confess that what I just spewed was bullshit, that the poem exists to delight you with sound, rhythms and rhymes, and that a very important rule is that it’s much better to miss a symbol than to misinterpret one.  That, in fact, most poems are the opposite of abstract, they’re concrete.

Ars Poetica

Archibald MacLeish

A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit,
Dumb
As old medallions to the thumb,
Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown—
A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds.
                         *
A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs,
Leaving, as the moon releases
Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,
Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,
Memory by memory the mind—
A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs.
                         *
A poem should be equal to:
Not true.
For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.
For love
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea—
A poem should not mean
But be.

2 thoughts on “Why Most High School Students Don’t Like Poetry

  1. Maybe they are wrong abt poetry being “hard.” I am pretty sure these poems are suggesting they are not, but not one-hundred percent certain — which is a quality they often encompass. I have come to the conclusion that english (or language in general) is the most difficult of all the academics.

    Words are so complex and have so many mechanisms, but when assembled by the right “wordsmith,” do not even seem manmade. The layers of meanings that can be expressed make for endless possibility. Studying programming has opened my eyes to how complicated humans are. Things like suggestion might never be capable for machines.

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