Something I have been sharing with my students over the past few years is the story of how I became confident enough to read and teach poetry.
You see, the truth about English teachers is that not all of them like poetry. Not all of them feel like they ‘get’ poetry, either. In fact, just like there are English teachers that hate Shakespeare, or storytelling, or debating, or essay writing, there are some English teachers that HATE poetry, and avoid teaching it wherever possible.
I was never a teacher that hated poetry. But I was a teacher that saw poetry as ‘beyond’ my understanding for many years. I knew I was supposed to ‘get it’, but I had to study what I was going to teach quite intently before tackling it in class, every time.
Oh the revision I had to do when I was a beginning teacher!
Oh how useless my university units including study of poetry seemed (and still seem)!
Luckily, I did have enough positive experiences of poetry from my youth to stay engaged – as a little kid I had some illustrated poetry books that I loved to read, and as a teenager I lived up to the classic stereotype of hormonal girl by writing maaany lines of free verse about my horrible melancholic life etc. into notebooks covered with skulls and flowery tattoo sketches.
Ahh, those were the days!
In high school English I enjoyed studying poetry, and felt very clever at it. But our study was always heavily guided by a teacher – when left to my own devices to interpret an unseen poem, I always felt lost and frustrated.
As for writing poetry, well … aside from a few haikus in junior English, I don’t recall writing any.
So what changed?
My attitude changed very quickly in my first year of teaching. Tell me if you’ve ever heard this advice:
A teacher should try completing activities themselves first, before setting them for students.
I know I’ve heard that advice a few times, and of course it’s good advice though impossible to follow all the time. However, as a beginning teacher it was clear to me that my colleagues and I were setting work for students that we didn’t do ourselves about, oh … half of the time? At least??
You see, no-one in the staff room was writing poetry, or short stories, or letters to the editor, or pretty much anything in their spare time. Two teachers in postgraduate studies would have been writing essays, but the rest of the teachers sure as shoot weren’t. Yet we were teaching a curriculum that required students to spend half of their time composing texts of various kinds.
When I realised this, what changed for me was that I decided to be more of a role model for my students by attempting more personal writing.
And that included poetry.
How does writing poetry help you like poetry?
The short answer: by providing a source of intrinsic motivation.
The longer answer: I found that trying to write poetry forced me to look at other people’s poetry in a whole new light. Just try writing a poem… if you aren’t already in the habit of it, you’ll probably find it challenging! Sometimes when I try to write a poem, the limits of my own writing ability are so in-my-face that I feel driven to go and read more examples of other people’s poetry to try to get ideas about different writing styles and tricks. There are still plenty of poems that I don’t understand, but these days there aren’t really any that I’m afraid of anymore!
Maybe I’m not completely right about this – after all, if you feel too frustrated with poetry writing, maybe you won’t appreciate other people’s attempts or even want to read any. (A message for teachers might therefore be to make sure that writing at school stays fun, so that students stay motivated and encouraged to independently learn more.)
Reading contemporary Australian poetry
Now that I actually like poetry, I’ve found out that I also actually like Australian poetry!
In a workshop by the Red Room Company with Johanna Featherstone last year, my students and I were asked to name as many Australian poets as we could. The list was woefully short and mostly full of bush poets… we agreed that day had been a wake up call for us all!
Since then I have been reading some volumes of poetry and I am very happy to recommend the following, for anyone who is keen to pursue contemporary Australian poets:
Ross and Michelle are poets that I’ve met since working at QUT, and I got to know Lachlan when he visited my class as a Red Room Company poet. Knowing a little bit about these poets has helped me to engage with their work, but honestly, they are all just bloody good! Have your library order them :)