Reflections on Teaching Poetry

Deborah Szabo

Deborah Szabo

by Deborah Szabo
This is the first of a series of stories by teachers of poetry in Massachusetts whose work makes a difference in the classroom.

I’m about to enter my forty third year of teaching(!) and of all the areas of English language and composition I’ve taught, poetry has brought me the most satisfaction. When I was a teenager, poetry was hip. Folk music invited everyone to pick up a guitar, write some songs, and join in singalongs, particularly those advocating social justice. The Beat Movement was slowly morphing into the Age of Aquarius, but most of my friends still walked down to Greenwich Village to hang out at coffee shops reciting poetry.

By the time I started teaching in 1973, interest in poetry had started to wane. Sure, there was the occasional Simon and Garfunkel recording that could be used to teach poetic devices, but it was difficult as a young teacher to inspire students to love poetry. My college English major had taught me how to analyze and appreciate poetry, but not how to really feel it. In spite of knowing the immortal words of Archibald MacLeish, “A poem should not mean but Be,” I kept trying to teach my students what poems meant. And neither they nor I found much joy in that.

Louder Than A Bomb competition

Louder Than A Bomb competition

I’m not sure exactly when or how this changed. I was teaching in Boston Public Schools when hip-hop started to emerge. Certainly, scholars could not have envisioned how much influence this genre would have on the future of poetry. It became cool to rap, to rhyme, to spit spontaneous lines in battle with other rappers. Suddenly, students were internalizing all the rules of poetry, without the aid of pen, paper, textbook, or teachers. I think part of the appeal has been the return to the oral nature of poetry. Teenagers have always loved their music, and what is poetry but music using words as the instrument? Asking students to hear poetry seems to be a first step in coming to appreciate it.

In the early 90s, I had some students who liked creative writing and felt frustrated by a curriculum that tied them in the strait-jacket of the five paragraph essay, from which they could find no escape. While discussing this dilemma one day, they suggested a Creative Writing Club. They petitioned the principal, who agreed that we could meet at the school one night a week. We did this for several months. I was always amazed that students would show up of their own volition for no credit. I didn’t even plan lessons. Mostly, we just sat and wrote. Then we’d read out our work and go home. It was very simple and very satisfying.

The following year students petitioned for a Creative Writing class. Thus, a new elective was born at Newburyport High School. The class was fun, but not quite as much fun as meeting in the evening had been, so Poetry Soup was born in 1995. This series of thirteen readings a year offers students a forum in which they can perform their poetry, as well as a guest speaker with whom they can discuss craft.  At the end of the year, students create Poetry Soup Magazine, featuring their own poems alongside those of our guest speakers.

Poetry Soup with Rhina Espaillat

Poetry Soup with Rhina Espaillat

A critical part of this program’s success has been the wonderful guest poets who have agreed to read for the students. We are blessed to have the Powow Poets right here in Newburyport, and boast that Rhina Espaillat is the “grandmother of Poetry Soup,” since she joins us whenever she can. I’m convinced that there is no better technique for teaching poetry than having students interact with a living poet who is in love with her craft.

Another poet who greatly facilitated my ability to teach poetry was Jack McCarthy, the first poet I heard who relied on performance as much as the page. As soon as I met him, I knew he would inspire my students. Sure enough, he quickly became an annual favorite at Poetry Soup and he introduced me to a whole new crew of young, dynamic poets in the Boston/Cambridge slam scene, whose poetry I could share with my students. Many of these poets see themselves as revolutionaries, using their words to initiate positive change.  Ironically, I felt myself going back to my roots with a 21st century twist…and I could take my students with me. Poetry is cool. Poetry is hip. One person’s voice can make a difference.

Louder Than A Bomb performance

Louder Than A Bomb performance

Performance poetry has provided a platform for all students – particularly those who often feel unheard – to speak their truths and be recognized. In a poetry slam, which is a competition, poems must be under three minutes long. In coaching a poetry team for Louder Than A Bomb, the largest youth poetry slam around, the most effective technique I have for teaching poetry is to simply say to students, “Okay, you’ve got three minutes. What do you want to say to the world? That’s not much time, so you’ll need to say the most you can with the fewest words. Ready? Set? Go!” What better way to introduce students to the power of figurative language?

In addition to participating in Louder Than A Bomb for the past four years (and making it to Finals twice and Semi-Finals the other two years!) our school has hosted a Student Day of Poetry through Mass Poetry that has energized even the most lackadaisical students. I find that what gets students the most interested in poetry is hearing what their peers have to say and realizing that they, too, have something to tell the world. Seeing that spark of recognition in my students brings me great joy and hope for the future.

This joy and hope has been reinforced every year during our annual Newburyport Favorite Poem Project. After participating in a Summer Poetry Institute at Boston University with former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky in 2002, several teachers felt inspired to go back to our communities to model a local Favorite Poem Project after Pinsky’s national one. I’m not sure how the others fared, but for me, this has been a wonderful teaching tool. For the past fourteen years, during National Poetry Month, my Creative Writing Class has collected poems from the community, culled through them, and selected twenty-four to be read by the people who submitted them, on the stage of our local theater. Many locals claim this is one of their favorite events of the year. The reason is clear: Poetry connects us all to each other and to our humanity. Once students get that, they will be hooked on poetry for good!