Why Poetry Is More Relevant Than Ever
I have been thinking a lot recently about why people think what they do, and how we have created such a divided country filled with people who refuse to see the point of view of anyone who does not already agree with them. I have also been thinking about how educators can work to stop this trend of ears shut, eyes closed, minds shut off from dialogue. I know that empathy is key, and I also think that constantly questioning what we believe is essential to bridging that gap.
One of the best ways that I know to keep myself on my toes, to refrain from sitting back in comfortable yet flawed patterns of thinking, is to read poetry. I have always loved teaching poetry— getting students to dig deep and analyze a work of verse is one of my favorite ways to spend an hour—but I think that teaching poetry is especially relevant right now.
These are the reasons why we need poetry today—maybe more than ever.
Good poems ask important questions.
I always explain to my students that if the poet knew the answer to the question, then they wouldn’t have written the poem in the first place. Shakespeare wants to know the best way to pass into old life and death, John Donne wants to know how to relate to a powerful and mysterious God, and Sandra Gilbert wants to know why she keeps falling for the seductive tricks of print media. And by working through metaphors or vivid images or whatever other fancy poetic device the poet has employed, what they are really trying to do is find the answer to an important question.
Great poems are about the difficulty of finding one answer.
If good poems are about looking for the answers to the important questions, better poems are about how difficult it is to find the answer. When teaching them how to analyze poetry, I often tell my students to look for the places where the speaker in the poem is conflicted. The more that Dorothy Parker’s poems say that she is an independent woman who doesn’t need a man to feel fulfilled, the more the poet’s insecurities are revealed. Langston Hughes believes that America can be America again, even though it never was America to him. Elizabeth Bishop might say that the art of losing is easy to master, but she struggles with herself to write it. Life is complicated and as good as it feels sometimes to make things simple, it’s also important to embrace the ambiguities.
The best poems get us to question our own beliefs.
If great poems are about the difficulty of finding an answer, the best ones get readers to question their own beliefs. As human beings, it is actually quite difficult for us to undo a belief once it has been established. But when we fully experience the emotions and ideas of a great poem, we start to reconsider what we thought we knew. I can’t avoid Wilfred Owen’s questioning of the old lie or Robert Hayden asking me what I know about “love’s austere and lonely offices.” I might think that I am living a full life and making all the best decision, I might believe all the lies that I tell myself that I am taking advantage of every opportunity and smelling all the roses, but every time that Mary Oliver asks me “what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” I realize how much I am fooling myself. (And I get outside to see what is happening with nature at that moment.)
Right now, it feels easy to shut down, to stop thinking, to take the path of least resistance. But we need poetry now more than ever. We need to question and wonder and look for the difficult solutions.
Christina Gil was a high-school English teacher for sixteen years, but she recently left the classroom to follow a dream and move with her family to an ecovillage in rural Missouri. She believes that teaching creative writing helps students excel on standardized tests, that deeply analyzing and unpacking a poem is a fabulous way to spend an hour or so, and that Shakespeare is always better with sound effects. When she is not hauling water to her tiny home, she can be found homeschooling her two kids, meeting with her neighbors about the best way to run their village, or writing in her blog, Gil Teach.