For the past month and a half, I’ve had the grueling task of teaching poetry to my middle school students. “Why is this task grueling?” you may ask, and if so, I may reply, “Are you an idiot?” or “Please clean the shit out of your ears.” Obviously, teaching poetry to anyone is a difficult task. In fact, I think there’s is only one thing on Earth more difficult than teaching poetry. That, my friends, is learning it.
Then, factor in that these particular poetry learners are also English language learners ranging from 12 to 14 years old, and also that the class is comprised of 3 loud, ridiculous boys and 1 very shy and reserved girl, and you see that the difficulty of this shit just got real.
Thankfully, they are brilliant and I love poetry, so it takes the edge off. However, we still have about 4 classes left to get through and it’s getting tougher by the day to find poems that don’t suck to supplement the stock, elementary, bullshit in our book. I hate most of the poetry I’m forced to teach these kids, but I understand why this is a problem in English textbooks. In searching for good examples to show the kids from my personal poetry library, I’ve consistently struggled to find poems that are GOOD, but don’t reference gratuitous sex acts in every stanza or use profane words more often than line breaks.
Regardless, I’ve found a lot to work with and they seem to take well to my examples of “poetry that isn’t awful.” My new favorite strategy, now that they can mostly identify a wide range of poetic devices, is to have them read each poem out loud, and then let them debate whether they think I like the poem or not. I’m very honest with them about my unnatural hatred for Robert Frost and my total apathy for traditional Native American poetry, so they do a pretty good job of guessing.
Today’s selection was Arithmetic by Carl Sandburg, a catalog poem that is by far one of the best choices made in our entire literature book. At first, they guessed that I probably hated the poem because they know how much I hate math. However, upon further examination, they eventually uncovered why I like it: The metaphors are surprising and interesting. The poem builds and develops well. It ends by revealing something that is cold and abstract to most people as being instead warm, familial, and necessary.
It’s amazing to me that these kids get that. It’s incomprehensible to me that I opened the door for them.
The best part of the discussion was when I asked about the last stanza, “Why does the mother give ‘you’ 2 eggs instead of 1?” hoping for the response, “Because she loves you.”
Only in Korea would a student answer (and mean it), “Because she wants you to be better at arithmetic?” Priceless.
So, because I love writing exercises, I whipped up a new one for making a collaborative catalog poem. I took a good old fashioned dictionary (one made out of paper, not made out of cell phone) and let them select a word at random. Ours was “madwoman.” Each student took turns writing a stanza. Then, at the beginning of each student’s turn, I selected a word at random that they had to include in their stanza. Here’s our finished result. I debated letting you know which words were the selected ones, but I didn’t want to detract from the poem’s brilliance. Enjoy!
A madwoman walks a street like a drunk man.
A madwoman, in fact, is mad.
A madwoman is a roasted human sauced with evil sauces.
A madwoman goes inside her house. We can find lots of junk things such as Daniel’s coat, Franklin’s handcuffs, etc.
A madwoman mangles mangoes, meat, milk delivery men.
A madwoman is riding a Ferris wheel and is spitting swear words to the people at the amusement park.