In the opening pages of her book Naming the World: A Year of Poems and Lessons, Nanci Atwell writes that as a teacher she wants students to know that “good poetry isn’t obscure, precious, goofy, or hackneyed.” She goes on saying, “poems can matter—can connect with and resonate in the life of every twelve- and thirteen-year-old.” I agree with her. For my explore class this semester, I’ve had the privilege of working with a small group of students who chose to explore the genre of poetry. It’s been delightful. Each week, we study two or three poems before trying our hand at writing one that imitates them. Over the semester, we’ve looked at a number of poems from Atwell’s collection, as well as other poems which I’ve grown to love as a reader and teacher. We read poems from students and professionals—oftentimes finding we enjoyed the young poets’ pieces (or our own renditions) just as much as their inspiration. We’ve read poems that play with form, poems that emphasize imagery, poems that ring with sound, poems that are silly, poems that we just discovered. One student found two new poets, annotating and marking each page of their books, starring the poems she loved the most and reading them aloud to us.
Over the course of the semester, I’ve been reminded as a teacher of the power of this genre for students. With its compactness and immediacy, poetry allows students to jump right into literary work—listening to and joining in larger conversations of a genre, recognizing shared and universal experiences, studying patterns and rational, exploring why the creative arts matter. As the weeks have gone by, our small group frequently commented on how poems reminded them of other pieces we’ve read or of their own stories. They gathered notebooks of their drafts and collections of poems they liked, often flipping between them.
At our final meeting together, I asked the group why they liked poetry so much—reading it and writing it.
“Because you get to write down your feelings,” one student said. “Whatever you’re feeling, you can format it and talk about it in the way that you want. Then other people can relate to it, and that means something.”
“People use poetry for different things,” another student added thoughtfully. “It can be what you make it, and I like that.”
Poetry lets our students examine the emotional layers of their lives in a way that feels relevant and freeing. Like the music they love, poems can provide them a soundtrack, and roadmap, for the ups and downs of growing up. They are not alone. There are others who have felt what they feel.
As Atwell says of her work as a teacher, “I hope every student is sold on the potential of poetry to give voice to something in the experience of his or her life.” This semester’s explore was a reminder to me how much Atwell is onto something here.