THE MISEDUCATION OF THE POET:
High School and the Fear of Poetry
by J.G. McClure
When I was an undergraduate taking one of my first poetry workshops, my poet-professor joked that “high school is where poetry goes to die.” I chuckled, thinking he was simply making fun of the melodramatic effusions of teenage writers.
I’ve since come to realize that what he was getting at is a much more systemic problem: that the way we’re taught about poetry in high school (the last time that many people will likely ever read a poem) bleeds the living energy from poetry and teaches students that the art is nothing but the dusty stuff of a museum of antiquities.
Last year, it was my good fortune to be able to teach four introductory poetry workshops at a major university. In addition to being the gateway course into the Creative Writing Emphasis, the course also allows the students to bypass taking a supremely unpopular research course. The result is a mix of students from all disciplines, some of whom want to become writers, and many of whom want to avoid, at all costs, writing a policy research paper. I discovered that nearly all of the students simultaneously held two mutually-exclusive notions about poetry. One, that poetry is easy—you just write whatever you feel! And two, that poetry is impossibly arcane—all thees and thous and Grecian Urns and anapests. Among all these students—intelligent, well-educated students drawn from the top of their high school classes—I had only two or three who had read a contemporary poem. Most of the students vaguely recollected some of Shakespeare’s sonnets, a few remembered Keats by name. After that, all bets were off.
I was disappointed, but not exactly surprised. My high school had excellent teachers of literature, including a PhD. I was lucky. It was there that I began to discover how powerful literature could be, and I can’t thank those teachers enough. We read everything from Gilgamesh and Beowulf to Keats and Coleridge to Williams and Eliot. And yet, not once did we venture past the Modernists. There were no Creative Writing classes offered.
Still, one of the teachers, Mr. Moore—a balding hippie who would bring his Telecaster to class and shred some riffs before talking passionately about variation of sentence structure—took it upon himself to teach his AP English Language class about writing more than just the essays the national exam would require of us. He took us into the woods to walk through nature and write poems about it. He sent us off the roam the campus and write poems about it. We didn’t workshop the poems, and he didn’t critique them.
And to be honest, I doubt I could have handled it if he had—I was a nervous kid and didn’t think I had a creative bone in my body. Though I understand his reasons for encouraging our efforts and avoiding criticism, the approach had the unintended effect of implying that poems were the spontaneous outpouring of emotion—not pieces of craft to be revised, torn apart, and rebuilt in order to make them better. The poem as it was written was the poem as it would remain.
But it was obvious to me that my efforts were nothing in comparison to those of the great dead we were reading, and I had no sense of how to improve them. Nor did I understand why I did the things I did. I sat at a picnic table under a tree and wrote about some falling leaves and trampled acorns. Most likely we had been reading Wordsworth, and I had intuited that poetry meant writing about transience and death and how great trees are. I had no sense that poetry had moved beyond those tropes, that contemporary poetry had been trying for decades to escape from the Romantic tradition that still forms so much of its foundation.
In “The Education of the Poet,” Louise Glück describes her discovery of poetry: “I read early and wanted, from a very early age, to speak in return. When, as a child, I read Shakespeare’s songs, or later, Blake and Yeats and Keats and Eliot, I did not feel exiled, marginal. I felt, rather, that this was the tradition of my language: my tradition.” Crucially, Glück sees herself here in conversation with the great dead, not merely a passive recipient of their brilliance. And yet, think of your high school poetry courses: you’d read the poems, maybe recite them, learn the Greek names for metrical feet, talk perhaps about imagery—you’d study the poem as an alien object, something complicated from the past to be reluctantly understood.
The idea that you could speak back never entered the discussion, at least not in my experience. Even when Mr. Moore attempted to put us in conversation with the canon, we were cast less as writers-in-dialogue-with-other-writers and more as clever parrots: we had to write an imitation of Whitman, using the stories and scenes of our own lives. Though we were making something, the goal was simply to fit our stories into the structure Whitman had already established. It was an exercise in mimicry, and a good grade meant being a good mimic. Though there was certainly a value in learning about Whitman’s music through imitation, the idea that we could speak back to Whitman, speak against Whitman, never appeared.
Setting aside the lack of dialogue with the poets of the past, consider how the poems themselves are discussed. “What is the poet trying to say?” the teacher asks—as if the poet had tried and failed to say something very simple. When Keats wrote “Bold Lover, never, never canst though kiss, / Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve; / She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,” what he meant to say was, “Urns are pretty cool. But maybe they’re not always cool. Because, you know, etchings don’t get old, but they can’t move either, and that’s kind of a bummer.” In high school, every poem has to have a tidy message, and you have to be able to name it.
What I mean is this: poems are taught as messages to be decoded, not as irreducible experiences. No wonder students are impatient with poetry! If the goal is simply to pick out the moral of the poem, then students are absolutely right that poetry is dull and overly complicated—platitudes can be stated much more concisely in prose. This type of message-hunting fails to convey that the way something is said is inextricable from what it means. It fails to convey that a poem is an experience the reader undertakes. It fails, in other words, to convey that there’s any difference between the experience of reading, say, Hamlet—really feeling his indecision, his false starts and worries and paralysis and rage as they all unfold—and the experience of reading the Sparknotes summary of the play.
Fast-forward to college, to these students sitting in my Intro to Poetry Writing class. They feel like their poems have to have a message, but that that message needs to be obscured by plenty of Poetry-with-a-capital-P. The models that they have to work from are some faintly-remembered Shakespeare, maybe some Keats, and a lot of Hallmark cards.
The result is highly overwritten language, a lot of purple greeting-card-speak used to dress up an otherwise simple moral axiom. Inevitably, most of the submissions rhyme and attempt meter (but since they’ve only studied meter as a set of abstract rules, never in practice, the meter is always garbled). The syntax is forced through all kinds of painfully Yoda-esque contortions to make it fit the rhyme scheme (again, not surprising since that was fine in the Renaissance and nobody has informed them that things have changed). Some students know that poems don’t have to rhyme anymore, but they don’t really have a sense of why a poet might use free verse in one situation and why a poet might use a sonnet in another. The idea that you don’t just write whatever you feel—that the poem is a carefully-made thing, that it is an ordered series of narrative/imaginative/sonic/moral experiences that the reader undergoes—is new.
At first, students will ask how to know where they’re supposed to break their lines—they want a formula (poetry is, after all, just a bunch of rules—remember all that stuff about iambic pentameter?). When I tell them that it’s all a question of what effects they want to create with their line breaks, that anything they do in the poem has myriad ramifications and precludes everything else they could have done in that moment instead, they’re at once frustrated and relieved. Typically someone will say, with a mix of complaint and awe, “I never knew writing poems was so hard.”
Around that point in the course, a funny thing happens: the students, nearly all of them, start to really care about their poems. They come to my office and spend half an hour talking about a few lines. They bring me revisions and more revisions. They discuss their work with their classmates, arguing aesthetic points and comparing their techniques to what they’ve seen in Glück or Larkin or Stafford or Siken or Lux. The poems improve immeasurably, and the students move from talking about what a poem means to talking about what a poem does.
This year, I’ve been teaching Introduction to Literary Journalism, and I’ve been surprised by the differences I’ve seen. From the beginning, the students’ writing is far stronger. Sure, there’s a bit of overwriting—any beginning writer deals with that—but it’s to a far lesser degree than the overwriting I would see at the start of my poetry courses. Nor do they feel the need to overcomplicate their pieces, or to throw in some thees and thous to make sure it’s literary enough. Moreover, the students are more passionate from the first day, and they’re much more comfortable engaging critically with the articles. If they hate an article, they’ll tell me—and they’ll tell me articulately why they hate it.
But when I show my Lit J students a poem, they turn suddenly quieter; only the bravest will say anything. Even in my poetry classes, it took several weeks for the students to overcome their fear of criticizing poetry. I suspect this is because in high school, they didn’t criticize poetry—the great poems were great, no question about it, now go try to decipher them.
Since Literary Journalism didn’t fully emerge as a recognizable genre until the last few decades, essentially all of the pieces that my Lit J students have read have been contemporary, free from the stifling aura of reverence and from the old-fashioned language of the poetry they’ve grown up having to read. They’ve seen the Lit J writers as writers, not quasi-mythological voices from the past. They’ve learned, in other words, to read Lit J, rather than to fear it.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that we should stop teaching highschoolers Shakespeare, Keats, or any of the other foundational poets. If it weren’t for reading Hamlet and “Prufrock” and “Ode on a Grecian Urn” in high school, I doubt I would have become a writer. These works moved me deeply, though they did not make me feel that I could speak back.
That feeling didn’t come until later, when I sat as a sophomore in my first poetry writing class, reading Larkin’s “This Be the Verse.” The poem works so well because Larkin knows the tropes of children’s rhymes, and because he is self-consciously speaking within and against that tradition. His comically-exaggerated-but-not-exactly-insincere argument—go kill yourself, and after you’ve killed yourself make sure not to have any children—interacts with the bouncy tetrameter of the nursery rhyme to produce an experience that couldn’t exist in any other way. It’s the result of a poet writing in dialogue with the past in order to create something wonderfully new.
“And you can say fuck in a poem?” someone asked.
“Of course you can. Say what the poem needs you to say.”
What does the poem need us to say? To know that, we need to know the poems of the past and the poems of the present. We need to learn the language poems speak, and how and when and why that language has changed. And if we’re going to get anywhere, we’ve got to learn how to talk back too.
J.G. McClure is an MFA candidate at the University of California – Irvine, where he teaches writing and works on Faultline. His poems and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in various publications including Fourteen Hills, The Southern Poetry Anthology (Texas Review Press), Colorado Review, and Green Mountains Review. He is at work on his first book.