The Relevance of Poetry

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I marked the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.”

-from “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost

The other day, I was asked by a teaching colleague to survey my 7th graders about why they pass – and why they fail – in school.  In specific, we were trying to figure out WHY kids fail, when they fail.  We know what we think, as adults – but what did they think?  The questions were open-ended, inviting rich commentary. “When you fail assignments and assessments, how does that happen?”

What resulted was a fascinating dialogue in which the kids were a lot more honest than I’d anticipated.  I thought they might say things like “Because it’s too hard,” or “Because the teacher sucks.”  But they knew the truth.  “Because I sit next to people I like talking to,” said one.  “Because I get frustrated and then I quit,” said another.  And then the bomb dropped.  “With some classes,” said one of the boys, “like science and social studies and language arts, I just don’t see how they apply at all to real life.”  Another boy sat up straight at this.  “I have a counter argument!” he said (his language arts teacher would be proud of him).  “My dad has to write summaries about his employees all the time!”  “All right,” said the first boy, “but poetry?  When do I need poetry?  And when do I need to write, like, an argument paper?”

That was the end of the conversation, because we ran out of time, but I want to continue discussing this with them later.  I’ve been continuing the discussion in my head for the past two days.

The truth is, I’m writing this post to figure out my answer.  I can come up with any number of speeches about the practical, real-world applications of understanding science, learning history, and knowing how to construct an argument.

But what about poetry?  I remember that my 8th-grade English teacher had “The Road Not Taken” up on her wall (if you’re an English teacher and you don’t have that poem on your wall, I’m pretty sure you get fired).  I remember reading it and feeling that I understood it – which I did, I think, but only literally.  That same teacher gave us a poetry exam on which we were supposed to identify literary devices and decipher meaning.  The poem she gave us was “Eleanor Rigby”.  I had experienced nothing like it.  I remember feeling defeated by it.  She wore a face she kept in a jar by the door?  No one was saved?  What are you talking about?  (I got a B on that test.  I still remember.  I was so mad.*)

So what do I tell this kid?  How can I convince a thirteen-year-old boy of the relevance of poetry? 

Do I tell him that he should learn poetry so that he can whip it out one day to impress a date?

Do I tell him it’ll get him into college?

Do I tell him that interacting with poetry is dangerous, because it might make him cry in public one day, when he accidentally reads a poem that is meant for him, that speaks to what he has experienced, that evokes an emotion which he has long believed he suffered uniquely?  Do I tell him that he should be careful, because when he finds that poem, he’ll be awakened by the revelation that somebody, SOMEBODY knew how to put WORDS to that feeling, which means he is NOT ALONE?

What if I did tell him that?  What kid is going to believe his crazy teacher who tells him that? 

The advice of teachers and parents and other mentors are a kind of poetry.  We hear the words, we understand them, and we acknowledge that they sound true, but we can’t really know until we’ve lived those words.  Like you can’t really know a poem until you’ve lived it. 

Maybe that’s what I’ll tell him.  You can’t really know a poem until you’ve lived it.  But trust me, once you get there – and you will – you’ll be glad you listened in class. 

*Mom, I want you to know that I remember what you taught me.  Dogs get mad; people get angry.  But seriously, I was SO MAD. 

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