I had a breakthrough this week.
Well, to call it a breakthrough makes it sound bigger than it probably really appears. As with many of my “ah ha” moments I’ve had in the last five years, this one too centers around a conversation I had with my students.
One of the hardest topics to teach young high school students is poetry. If you’re lucky, you’ll a handful of students who really enjoy poetry already because they either write it themselves, or have an innate appreciation of it simply because they enjoy reading and/or writing. Most, however, will be brick walls who have a hard time seeing the value in poetic pursuits. I’ve worked hard for the last several years as a teacher to break down those walls, or at least find a way to climb them. I’ve incorporated music, modern poetry, and poetry def-jams in an attempt to turn my students on to poetic verse. Each of these tactics have helped, so they were all useful, but a conversation I had this past week with my students may have changed everything. And as fate would have it, the topic of discussion certain relates to all our lives.
As I was doting on poetry’s unique ability to bend the rules of English, I started to wonder into talking about poetry’s complexity. It never fails that every year I have a student ask me, “Why can’t a poet just say what they mean?” To this question, I have had many replies, but for whatever reason on this day I was inspired to say something that felt was a real and true answer.
We had just finished talking about literal and figurative meaning, so my thoughts went to how complex writing can be, which is exactly what turns off students who are non-readers. My answer to this student’s question came out something like this, “Poets do say exactly what they mean, but much like a music artist there is more to their lyrics than just what’s on the surface. Music and poetry are complex and at times difficult to decipher because we are complex and at times difficult to decipher.” At first, I was met with odd expressions on their faces, but as my statement started to sink in, I saw a light click for many of them. My reply to the question turned into an interesting discussion about human complexity, and suddenly my students understood why poetry exists and why it must be written at times.
I was excited to see my students light up about poetry, but I was even more excited to understand the connection myself. Poetry, and really any type of writing, is complex because we are not simple ourselves. I encourage you to ponder that idea yourself, and maybe take the time to write something that reflects your own complexity.
You might be surprised at how much better you’ll feel afterward.