Young English students often come to poetry via the historically canonical “greats” and are encouraged to
learn technical poetic terminology in order to identify what a dead poet (Shakespeare, for instance) was “saying” in any given poem. Such instruction is indeed useful in helping students understand the nuts and bolts of poetic craft. But how many of us have watched students’ eyes glaze over as we tell them a certain poet is “great” for this or that technical reason and because of what the poem did in its historical context? Bringing contemporary literary journals (Grist: The Journal for Writers, for instance) into the classroom is an excellent way to demonstrate that poetry is not just an art that was, but an art that still is widely practiced, an art that does something for both the writer and reader.
Provide students with a copy of (or selections from) a recently published literary journal, like Grist: The Journal for Writers.
Questions to ask:
What kinds of people are included in the volume?
¬–Most journals include a contributors’ notes/bio section where students can see that today’s working writers are older and younger, from many backgrounds, professions, and interests.
What are contemporary poets writing about?
–Using Grist (Issue 4), for example, draw attention to poets on different subjects; maybe Michael Peterson’s “Fugue for Sinking” next to Grace Bauer’s “Make Mine Vera Wang” next to Johnathon William’s “Trespassing in my Childhood Home” next to “Heidi Lynn Staples’ “Psalm 139.”
–This will demonstrate the wide variety of subject currently written on while showing students that these days anything is fair game for poetic subject matter.
What Poems/Poets do you enjoy the most and why?
–Allowing students to draw and discuss their own conclusions about work they admire/enjoy the most for their own reasons will diminish the idea that there is a “right” and “wrong” way to engage poetry.
–Transferring agency to the students in deciding what constitutes a “good” poem will help them see that they can participate in discussions of poetry without being intimidated by the genre.
–Urging discussion that includes both a poem’s content and form will help students understand the reasons for and applications of the knowledge they’ve accrued by studying poetry’s technical aspects.
Ask students to choose one poem and poet from the literary journal you’re using and write an imitative response poem that directly addresses the chosen poem or poet (in any way of the student’s choosing).
Ask students to provide a brief write-up detailing why they chose the poem/poet imitated and how they went about creating their imitation; what did they imitate (form, content, tone, etc?), how did responding to the poem allow the student to combine her or his sense of self, point of view and creativity within a poetic conversation?
¬–Asking students to directly respond to a contemporary poem will demonstrate the contemporary world of poetry’s communal aspect.
–Asking students to consider why they liked what they liked and how they went about responding will reinforce that contemporary poetry can be approached in many different ways for many different reasons.
This lesson plan may take place in a single class session or over the course of a longer period, but either way it is intended to reinforce the historical aspect of poetry most often encountered in the high school English class. Allowing students to experience (both reading and writing) poetry in the contemporary moment will enrich discussion of historical poems and poets by promoting discussion of the historical writer as a person working within her/his time, responding to her/his own world and experiences. Poetry, then, can become something that is and does for the young student who has recently joined a contemporary poetic conversation (or tradition). This experience can vastly invigorate discussions of historical poets/poems by encouraging students to think of poetry as a conversation had in and through time rather than something that is only decoded and taken apart to identify what it was and did.