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Why Students Should Write Formal Poetry

During the six years I taught ninth grade poetry, my students continually reminded me of two specific needs of high schoolers: the hunger to be led and the hunger to be heard. It can be easy to view these two needs as competing goods. After all, shouldn’t students be listening to other, older voices before attempting to “find their own?” Perhaps formal poetry provides an answer. To assign students to write poetry with meter and verse is to give them a glorious little playground. Forms make good fences. Inside these fences, students can be led and heard at the same time.

As an undergrad student in Manhattan, I reveled in free verse poetry. I read a lot of Whitman and Ginsberg, and then I ranted and raved all over the pages of my notebooks. It was not entirely a waste of time. I think there is some ingenious and gorgeous free verse poetry in this world (I doubt any of it was written by me). But the point is that my poetic playground, like the city where I lived, was so large that I was often lost and overwhelmed. Young students often need (and crave) smaller plots of poetic ground, such as the sonnet, the villanelle, and even the limerick. These are more constricted spaces in which to fit words, but what happens within them is often more glorious.

Robert Frost once said that to write poetry without form is to play tennis without the net. My students love nets. In particular, they love volleyball and basketball. They love how the boundaries on the court exhort them to accomplish tasks both more challenging and beautiful than can be done alone. Even on an open field they circle up, create structures, make rules. And then they play. Through this structured play comes a rare kind of communication—in motion they reveal their strengths and struggles: who among them has great coordination, or exuberant kindness, or a struggle with courage, or trouble laughing at themselves. Because of structured sports, they know each other better, and they know how to live with one another better.

Within the fence of meter and rhyme they must practice precision and contemplation. Not just any word will do. The students’ needs to be both led and heard meet in the search for the right word. For instance, perhaps the form dictates that a student cannot merely “write a story about love,” she must find a one-syllable word that rhymes with sun and continues, grammatically and thematically, to tell the story she seeks to tell about love. Another must condense his courage into a couplet, or squeeze hope into a haiku. And then they step back and see how the form helped them say what they were supposed to say. William Wordsworth put it this way at the end of his sonnet “Nuns Fret Not”:

In sundry moods, ’twas pastime to be bound

Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground;

Pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be)

Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,

Should find brief solace there, as I have found.

I would argue that the ultimate goal of practicing formal poetry is not self-expression, or even communication. To paraphrase Frost again, poetry is a matter of surprise, both for the reader and the writer. This surprise may include revelations about the writer’s own feelings, thoughts, and needs, and this can be healthy and good. But a greater surprise awaits the young poet: that in writing you can participate in a greater story, a story in which what we hold in common as human beings far outshines that which makes us individuals. While writing formal poetry, my often-angsty freshmen grew less isolated and inward-focused and more calm and observant. This surprise offers students the solace Wordsworth reminds us of.

After my students completed a poem-writing assignment, I always invited them to stand and share their work. Thus began the squirming, the waiting, the considering. Inevitably, a handful would gather the courage, would stand, would read—each read-aloud a moment of revelation about the thoughts, feelings, and stories of one valuable young soul—and, even better yet, about something that connected that soul to all of the others in the room.

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