Teaching poetry to teenagers


I enjoyed this blogpost and I have a few observations about the teaching of poetry, indeed of English in secondary schools.
Nostalgia. Nothing like it used to be, nostalgia. The copies of the old Soundings textbook we all treasured and passed from sibling to sibling (I have a set of 25 old and 25 brand new copies in our school bookshop) were great, and a great marketing trick to bring them back into print, but they belong to a different era. Gus Martin was my lecturer too in UCD and his trusted associate Veronica O’Brien taught me much of what I know about teaching English. But Soundings had its day. With Interim, as you say emblazoned across the cover it was always to be replaced.
As a teacher my reading habits were assaulted when the new English course arrived ten years ago or more, and in poetry I can only say that was a good thing. Taking the opportunity to refresh the list of prescribed poets every year has reinvigorated many a classroom and allowed those of us who taught the old course (and studied it!) to mix the old with the new.
But teaching poetry has never been about the particular poet for me, it has always been about empathy with the poet writing the poem, experiencing something that we can all attempt to understand. Yesterday I read Diving into the Wreck by the recently deceased Adrienne Rich with a 6th Year class, and Fear no More the Heat O’ the Sun by Shakespeare with 5th Years, a good mix of the old and the new. With the same classes I have done Hopkins, Frost, Kavanagh and Boland. We talked about patriarchy (a class of girls love that), we talked about grief, we talked about putting people in boxes and we talked about absence. I never had those conversations when I was a boy, I never had them when we used Soundings.
So what if there are no poets older than Frost on the course this year? It is not that the canon has become uncool, canons have become uncool and the interest of a class can as easily be pricked by Derek Walcott or Elizabeth Bishop as by Wordsworth and Shelley. The mention of Latin is a red herring: I never studied Latin ( philistines in schooldays outnumber those of us who opted for it and it was dropped), but I read Chaucer in school and UCD. It is to underestimate students today to say that they cannot get the same enjoyment out of those poets that we got out of Andrew Marvell. It isn’t that students can’t engage with Pope today, it’s that there’s more poetry to choose from and they can chose it. Every year I ask my students to read the poets widely and we’ll do one that they are particularly taken by, they’ve chosen Heaney, they’ve chosen Plath, are these poets not worthy of study? We may as well argue over the merits of the Beatles vs the Smiths vs Oasis and whoever else. It’s taste, and tastes change.
To take a poem, so many mere words printed on a page and change into something that a student can appreciate understand and enjoy is one of the joys of my job. (And I’ve never memorised a poem in my life except through repetition, so I can’t force my students to do what I can’t.) I don’t give notes, I don’t summarise, I talk about poetry. And often these teenagers talk back. That is what poetry should be about, a conversation between writer and reader, and if I can facilitate that once a week, I can safely say I’ve done my bit.

PS I use my Exploring English Short Story Anthology all the time at Junior Cert, Bryan MacMahon’s Windows of Wonder comes to mind. The teacher in that story was doing what we can only hope to do every time we present our students with a work of literature, opening their minds…