Author Bio

Who’s Afraid of Teaching Poetry?

posted: 5.17.09 by archived

by Nick Richardson

I recently contacted forty or so English adjunct friends—all composition and rhetoric instructors—for tips on teaching poetry. About half responded that, while they do teach a poem or two in their classes, they were too uncertain about their methods to share any pedagogical tricks or assignments in a public sphere. The rest were quiet as chrysanthemums.

In an effort to break the ice, what follows is my own experience teaching poetry in a first-year composition class.

It was my first semester teaching, and my students had just finished the second drafts of their final research papers. About half were desert dry; the rest: talk-radio screeds. The peer-review hadn’t gone very well, either. The problem: I’d assumed that everyone knew what a good research paper looked like, but it was clear from the drafts that I’d highlighted the one-two punch importance of good research and a strong thesis…and glossed over form. I cleared our schedule for the next class once I realized what was going on, canceling all readings and asking everyone to please take a break from their papers.

The next class period I came in with photocopies of Allen Ginsberg’s two page polemic: “Poetry, Violence, and the Trembling Lambs”—a selection from Deliberate Prose, his book of essays. I had the students read silently, and then we talked about how his argument worked and failed (mostly failed) rhetorically.

As a counterpoint, I plugged in the classroom stereo and played a recording of Allen Ginsberg reading “America,” his poem of the same theme. Unfortunately, I only have a version with Tom Waits’s musical backing to share here:

There were, of course, giggles—it’s a funny poem in places; there’s an “eff bomb.” It’s also a beautiful poem, and rhetorically superior to the essay. More importantly: the students understood—and were moved by—the argument of the poem (as opposed to the essay, which is really just a rant; I’d stacked the deck).

The majority of the class was eaten up by the essay/discussion/recording, and I was only really able to get out a lame, tacked on conclusion before the end-of-hour diaspora: “Your research papers—your arguments—need to be more like the poem than the essay.”

When I read the subsequent drafts a week later it was clear that most of my students understood: I wasn’t looking for a list of facts or a rant; I was looking for an argument worth making…meaningfully, gracefully made.

So…how have you used poetry in the classroom?

Nick Richardson is an associate editor at Bedford/St.Martin’s. He holds an MA in Literary and Cultural Theory from Boston College and has published three books (two poetry, one prose)…exhibiting what poet Andrei Codrescu has called “a fresh sort of daring in the overstrained broth of contemporary American poetry.” He is also the publisher of A Mutual Respect Books and Music, an underground chapbook press operating out of Brooklyn, NY.

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One Response to “Who’s Afraid of Teaching Poetry?”

  1. Rachel E, former teacher Says:

    Great post! Thought your readers might be interested in these two articles mentioned here as well: