In an education landscape that dramatically deemphasizes creative expression in favor of expository writing and prioritizes the analysis of non-literary texts, high school literature teachers have to negotiate between their preferences and the way the wind is blowing. That sometimes means sacrifice, and poetry is often the first head to roll.
Yet poetry enables teachers to teach their students how to write, read, and understand any text. Poetry can give students a healthy outlet for surging emotions. Reading original poetry aloud in class can foster trust and empathy in the classroom community, while also emphasizing speaking and listening skills that are often neglected in high school literature classes.
Students who don’t like writing essays may like poetry, with its dearth of fixed rules and its kinship with rap. For these students, poetry can become a gateway to other forms of writing. It can help teach skills that come in handy with other kinds of writing—like precise, economical diction, for example. When Carl Sandburg writes, “The fog comes/on little cat feet,” in just six words, he endows a natural phenomenon with character, a pace, and a spirit. All forms of writing benefits from the powerful and concise phrases found in poems.
I have used cut-up poetry (a variation on the sort “popularized” by William Burroughs and Brion Gysin) to teach 9th grade students, most of whom learned English as a second language, about grammar and literary devices. They made collages after slicing up dozens of “sources,” identifying the adjectives and adverbs, utilizing parallel structure, alliteration, assonance, and other figures of speech. Short poems make a complete textual analysis more manageable for English language learners. When teaching students to read and evaluate every single word of a text, it makes sense to demonstrate the practice with a brief poem—like Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool.”
Students can learn how to utilize grammar in their own writing by studying how poets do—and do not—abide by traditional writing rules in their work. Poetry can teach writing and grammar conventions by showing what happens when poets strip them away or pervert them for effect. Dickinson often capitalizes common nouns and uses dashes instead of commas to note sudden shifts in focus. Agee uses colons to create dramatic, speech-like pauses. Cummings of course rebels completely. He usually eschews capitalization in his proto-text message poetry, wrapping frequent asides in parentheses and leaving last lines dangling on their pages, period-less. In “next to of course god america i,” Cummings strings together, in the first 13 lines, a cavalcade of jingoistic catch-phrases a politician might utter, and the lack of punctuation slowing down and organizing the assault accentuates their unintelligibility and banality and heightens the satire. The abuse of conventions helps make the point. In class, it can help a teacher explain the exhausting effect of run-on sentences—or illustrate how clichés weaken an argument.