Developmental Writing Tip: “Poetry is for Wusses” and Other Myths

“I watch football every Sunday; I also love poetry.”

I always tell this to my English 1102 classes on the first day. At UGA, Comp II is literature-based. We read and write about poetry, short stories, drama, and film. Most of my students walk into class with a preconceived notion about literature. Especially poetry. Somewhere along the way, society taught them that—at best—“poetry sucks,” and—at worst—anyone who likes poetry is weak and wasting time. This sentiment is shared by both guys and girls. Because of this, I spend the first week of class driving home the idea that it is okay to read (and even enjoy!) poetry. I consider it one of my duties as an instructor to break that deeply ingrained bias against the literary arts.

It all begins on Day One, when I drop that line, and then launch into a passionate defense of poetry. I ask my students to leave their fears and negativity about poetry at the door. I tell them that in my class, we will talk about poetry and that it’s okay to like it. I tell them to prepare themselves because we might even discuss our feelings. This inevitably sends a ripple of giggles through the class. To which I respond with only a confident smile. Yes, in my classes we talk about our feelings sometimes. My goal of course is to eventually pull students toward a well-supported textual analysis, but talking about our feelings is often a first step in the invention process. Not to mention it helps create a culture of sharing and openness in the class that facilitates lively and passionate discussions.

In addition to the establishment of an open classroom culture, this emphasis on the introspective furthers my goal of breaking down preconceived walls towards the study of literature. It begins to establish a certain acceptance of vulnerability, which I also think is crucial to creating the classroom environment for which I strive. It’s almost impossible to really discuss a poem if one isn’t willing to make oneself vulnerable. Our “reading” of the text comes from our own experiences. We interpret what we know. Any true reading is necessarily a statement of vulnerability on the part of the reader. Therefore, I push my students to make themselves vulnerable in my classroom. We talk about our feelings. By the end of the first class, my students know that (1) they will have to share, and (2) literature is highly respected in my class and it’s okay (even encouraged!) to like poetry.

I’ve found a very strange phenomenon occurs when I start my courses with such a deeply-ingrained statement of purpose. The students actually like poetry. I know. Crazy, right? Who would have thought that all it takes is to tell them they’re allowed to like it. I honestly believe many people secretly, somewhere deep in the recesses of their minds, really do want to love the arts. The problem is society has taught them not to. We don’t respect the aesthetic. In America in particular, we worship efficiency. We no longer (or perhaps never did) understand:

”L’art pour l’art.”

Creative expression has no value in a society fueled by consumerism. But, alas, I’m going to rein it in before I go off on a tangent. The point is my students have fallen victim to this mentality and therefore, have learned to disrespect literature. One of my primary goals is to unlearn this prejudice, and crafting a culture of openness and vulnerability is one way I attack it. My silly statement about football and poetry is just my way of breaking the ice on this issue. It accomplishes my two goals of (1) deconstructing the binary of Arts/Toughness, and (2) makes me slightly vulnerable to my students by being the first to admit something personal that society perceives as being undesirable.

I then continue to ease them into the world of literary analysis by assigning the Ezra Pound poem “In a Station of the Metro” for the first homework assignment. All I ask them to do is write 100 words on the poem. “There are no wrong answers,” I say. “Write whatever comes to mind.” The poem is so simple, but yet allows for many different angles of approach. They write about anything from the language to the punctuation to the image to Pound himself. The second day of class always ends up being almost an entire hour about two lines of poetry. Imagine that. Just 48 hours earlier, my students were vacant-eyed, scoffing as I explained the importance of poetry in the class. They are always blown away by the fact that we discussed two lines for an hour, and also by the vast number of different interpretations in the classroom. Added bonus: when they later complain about writing papers, I just remind them we once talked for an hour about two lines.

So the point of all this I guess was to tell you what I do on my first day of class, but it kind of became more than that. It’s wild how that happens with writing. How when we make ourselves vulnerable and start to share our feelings, we discover more than we even intended. If all goes well, my students will begin to learn this lesson on Wednesday.

In a Station of the Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

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