American poetry education has fallen in a bad way. Any young person who reads poetry for pleasure knows this, for the lover of verse often knows few, if any, fellow aficionados of Keats and Yeats, let alone Brodsky or Baudelaire. When I ask people my age what they think about poetry, they usually say it is boring, difficult to understand, and elitist. They recall their experience of reading poetry in grade school as learning to decode the impenetrable and all-elusive meaning of an early-modern text, or perhaps just making one up ad-hoc, in hopes of a good grade. So when they stop being required to read poetry, at around age 18, they all-too-often cease reading poetry altogether. Not unlike the fate of jazz music in America, robust study and enjoyment of poetry has been relegated to the university, where its primary devotees are in fact the poets themselves.
There are various ways we might explain the sociological phenomenon of the vanishing of poetry from the public sphere, ranging from a simple change in literary tastes, to the decline of poetry as a symptom of the decline of Western Civilization. I won’t address the different virtues of these sorts of explanations here. I merely wish to suggest a possible antidote to this, the fruit of which I have experienced in my own teaching experience.
I think that beginning the study of poetry with contemporary poetry, rather than epic poetry or anything else, can lead to a more fruitful interaction between students and the verse they read in the long term. I also think that this is appropriate even in the setting of a classical curriculum that favors the traditional Western canon.
To begin thinking about how to best teach poetry, it is fitting to ask: Why do people like poetry? Good poetry is visceral, vivid, and often appeals to the universal details of human experience. But most of our interaction with texts is radically unlike the interaction between poem and reader. We gloss textbooks for facts, novels for excitement and wisdom, emails for things to remember, etc.
With poetry, on the other hand, pure aesthetic enjoyment is always a crucial facet of the reading experience. Poetry offers the prospect of an unadulterated engagement with beauty. Poetry offers even us jaded postmodern humans an opportunity for the simple delight in the senses that we all experienced as children.
So why don’t more people enjoy reading poetry? I think it is because they haven’t been properly prepared to engage this aesthetic aspect of poetry. They read poetry like they read anything else: for mere meaning. So we must build up our students’ capacity for engaging in this aesthetic enjoyment if we want to make poetry a commonplace part of our culture again.
This is no easy task, however. Our early experiences with poetry create deep-seated ideas about what poetry is, what it is for, and how to read it. And for many students, their earliest encounters with poetry are Shakespeare’s sonnets, or excerpts from Homer’s Odyssey. The nature of these texts combined with the age at which students encounter them can be problematic: Students—striving with rather foreign syntax and vocabulary in the case of Shakespeare, or trying to understand crucial background information largely absent from the Homeric text itself—forget that they are supposed to be enjoying what they are reading. The aesthetic aspect of these works is pushed aside, and reading poetry becomes for that student, from that moment forward, a rather unpleasant deciphering game.
If, on the other hand, a student’s first experiences with poetry engaged the aesthetic aspect of poetry, then when they later move on to complex issues of formalism and language, they would still be able to enjoy what they are reading at the aesthetic level. Homer’s epics might again be appreciated for their mastery of cinematic imagery, and the student’s morale and appreciation for the text might be maintained even among the trickiest of scansion.
Contemporary poetry is just the sort of thing that could cultivate a student’s aesthetic sense. Many modern and contemporary poets strove to distill their verse to simple image, prioritizing the immediate sensory experience of the poet. Furthermore, the language and landscape of contemporary poetry is familiar to the American student. Take the pastoral surrealism of James Wright, or the poems of Li-Young Lee, which find the sacred in the everyday. These sorts of works are immediately accessible in a way that romantic poetry and the classical epic are not. As a poetry professor of mine once put it, “The meaning of (good) contemporary poetry is just what the poem itself says—no more and no less.”
Consider Wright’s “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota.” When I read this poem with my students, they all understand the feeling the poem exemplifies, simple as it is. All of them have spent time in the countryside, relishing the spring air, wishing they didn’t have to return to a normal life. They have all experienced the beauty of such a moment, and can see that same beauty in the few vivid details of that 13-line poem. Most importantly, they are able—despite their own impressions about the difficulty of reading poetry—to enjoy the poem.
This exercise, if repeated enough times, will begin to cultivate an aesthetic sense in students, and will efface their negative associations with poetry. Then, while struggling with a more difficult text like Homer, they will all the while be able to enjoy the aesthetic aspect of the poem that abounds in lines such as this:
“He went forth in silence along the shore of the loud-resounding sea, and earnestly then, when he had gone apart, the old man prayed…” (Iliad 1.34)
Thus by reading contemporary poetry, students can have a richer experience reading the classics. Who knows? They might even fall in love with the beauty of Dante’s terza rima or Homer’s hexameter, and embark upon a lifetime of reading poetry for pleasure.