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Lending an Ear

The Online Poetry Classroom

By Rachel Galvin | HUMANITIES, May/June 2004 | Volume 25, Number 3

When a poet visits his classroom, says Richard Cappuccio, students "find out that poets are alive."

"I love Shakespeare, and I love Emily Dickinson and John Donne, and I love Wordsworth," says Cappuccio, who teaches at Grover Cleveland High School in New York. "Those are the poets that are brought into the classroom on a regular basis--but everybody's dead."

High school teachers are finding new ways to cultivate a love of reading poetry in their students. The Online Poetry Classroom, a website and workshop series sponsored by the Academy of American Poets, is helping teachers get better acquainted with poetry and develop curricula tailored to their classes.

"When the poet comes in, there is a heightened awareness. It's like the student has had his first cup of coffee and he's awake and alive and connected," Cappuccio says. "Putting students in front of a living poet really demands that they up the ante in terms of their own intellectual investment. It's very easy to like the personality of a poet and I think that motivates."

If a teacher cannot bring a poet into the classroom, students have the chance to hear a poet reading his or her work through the website, which contains more than one hundred audio clips. By clicking on "Listening Booth," a student can listen to Gwendolyn Brooks recite "We Real Cool," Wallace Stevens read "The Idea of Order at Key West," Langston Hughes recite "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," or Elizabeth Bishop read "The Armadillo."

"No one speaks more passionately about poetry than poets," says Ed Hirsch, who directed the Academy's first summer institute. "I think that the combination of passion and erudition that the poets bring to teaching gives the teachers another way of thinking about what they're doing."

Allison End, a teacher at the Rye Day School in New York, invited Greg Fraser, a poet participating in the summer institute, to visit her class. "We read one of his poems, 'Ars poetica,' before he showed up. I didn't tell the students that there was a real-live person attached to it, which was really exciting," she says. "They read it and fell in love with the poem, and then he came in and told them about how it evolved, and worked with them on some revision exercises. It really helped them wrap their minds around this idea that great poetry becomes great for a reason--that it's something you really have to shape and work on for a long time."

The Online Poetry Classroom encourages teachers to work with poets by putting them in touch with Writers in the Schools programs across the country. One of the oldest, the New York-based Teachers & Writers Collaborative, has been arranging for writers to visit the classroom since 1967 and provides workshops for more than 30,000 students per year.

"There is much to share, a seriousness, a purposefulness in the encounter," says poet Carol Conroy, a member of the collaborative who helps lead the workshops. "The way philosophers and doctors might confer to talk about medicine and ethics, I think teachers and poets bring an intensity of focus to a collective concern. Poets and English teachers share a passion about three things: poetry, children, and educating the imagination."

"I wish every school could have a poet in residence for at least half a year, and all that poet had to do was to be present for the English teachers," says End.

One of the most useful ideas that a poet can communicate to students, according to Cappuccio and End, is the importance of reading. Often students are more eager to try writing poems than to read them, Cappuccio says. He quotes Gerald Stern to his students and tells them that to write poetry, one must read it 99 percent of the time and write it only 1 percent of the time.

"The point is to see the poet not just as a writer, a visiting intellectualized rock star, but to see the poet as someone who reads poetry," Cappuccio says. "There are students who will say 'I don't have to read poetry because I write poetry.' And they're very facile at writing couplets about teenage angst. But if you can get a student to read Arthur Rimbaud, if you can get a student to read T.S. Eliot--all of a sudden the poetry gets a lot more interesting."

"It's not teaching poetry so much as helping students become their own seekers after poetry," says Dale Worsley, a professor in the writing program of the School of the Arts at Columbia University.

"Kids are naturally excited about poetry," says Cappuccio. "They love sound, they love rhythm, they love images, they love everything that poetry tries to convey. Oftentimes it's just a question of going in and presenting my weathered enthusiasm."

Worsley agrees. In a sestina he recited at the 2001 summer institute, he says, "They give me new life every day, these students. / They're what make it worthwhile to dream. / They're the light at the end of the curriculum."

"You see kids who won't read Wordsworth in the classroom who are out talking in rhymes and swinging to the beat on the street and writing their poetry," he says. "It may not be a kind of poetry that appeals to our sensibilities, but it still is a way that they are expressing themselves, they are owning the language, they are communicating thoughts that they can't express any other way. There's far more poetry going around than people may understand."

With NEH support and in collaboration with the Institute for Learning Technologies and Teachers and Writers Collaborative, the academy held two summer institutes and is now bringing poets, curriculum advisers, and teachers together for one-day workshops held in the schools.

Conroy often begins teacher workshops by quoting from William Carlos Williams's poem, "Asphodel That Greeny Flower": "It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there."

"We need poetry because we are human creatures that remember the cry of wonder and the cry of sorrow," she says. "These are factors in every life. That enormous need to express what it is to have been here on this earth for a short time--our poets are the people who articulate that experience for us."

The teachers and poets are working together to enliven their approach and break away from traditional methods. "The teaching of poetry has been medicinal," says Hirsch, whose book How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry was the model for the institute. "It has been taught in a way that has to do with the rules of poetry, like what a sonnet is, how many lines it has. Teachers ask kids to memorize that, and they come back and give them quizzes about Shakespeare's sonnets."

"The deeper question is why Shakespeare wrote sonnets, or what a sonnet does for you, or how passionate those sonnets are, what kind of information they carry that is not carried by other things or that has not been conveyed very often," he says.

"Students often come in with the misconception that poetry is hard to understand, that it's a difficult puzzle like a math problem," says Worsley. "And they may think it's written by smart people who are dead, and that it doesn't have anything to do with their own personal lives. Meanwhile they may be scratching angst-written words in their journals and writing incredible snappy email messages to each other, just not understanding that those words can be formed up into more formal poetry. You can quickly overcome that, I think, if you establish a way of seeing and understanding poetry."

One teacher has created a website dedicated to the sonnet; another has compiled her own anthology for her students from the more than 1,500 poems available on the academy's website. One gives students creative writing exercises, and another encourages her students to teach poems to one another.

Conroy talks to teachers about learning poems by heart. "Get a student to find a poem that he or she really loves and memorize it," she says. "And then have a class where they take turns reciting, videotape the class, and maybe put it on the computer, and then have the kids watch it. It helps them claim poetry for their own lives."

Cappuccio often introduces his students to poetry through Walt Whitman. "I love doing Whitman because he is where American poetry starts. The themes of Whitman's Song of Myself are themes that students are immediately attracted to," he says. "The themes of celebration, of one's perceived individuality, and at the same time, struggling, as students do, with where they fit into the interconnectedness of everything. It's all in Whitman. Of course, Whitman gets more serious and more pensive as Song of Myself goes on, and I think his ruminations about eternity and death, the big questions that have to be asked--which start in high school when the student awakens and he or she realizes that yes, I'm an individual, but yes, I'm also mortal--I think those themes students like and identify with."

Cappuccio offers a variety of poems to students in the hopes that they will discover a poem they love. "Some students are really going to like Gertrude Stein, and some students are really going to look forward to the last day that they have to look at one of her poems. Other students' jaws will drop when they read Emily Dickinson, and other students will see it as trite, as I did when I was in high school. As a teacher you become jealous of the students who have greater insight at their age than I had at mine."

"Not all poetry appeals to all kids," says End. "I let them choose which poems to analyze and talk about. Every day I come in and ask what they liked, and they all have different opinions, and they all beg to discuss their poem, the one they chose that day."

The website is linked to the academy's online poetry archive, which teachers are using as an adaptable anthology. "When you order a text you're stuck with what's in it--which is why the anthologies are just getting bigger and bigger--because they're trying to meet the needs of many different constituent groups and types of classes," says Sheryl Forste-Grupp, a teacher at Episcopal Academy in Philadelphia.

The archive is not limited to American poets, but includes biographies, audio links, and poems from writers from around the world. Hirsch believes that it is important to introduce students to international poetry as early as possible. "It's immensely helpful to widen the scope. In that way you widen the scope of humanity," he says. "Poetry is a world activity. It's an international activity."

"I have found that many students relate to poems in translations, sometimes more powerfully than the way that they relate to poems in their own language," he continues. "The truth is that there are tonalities and feelings and characteristics of other poetries that don't even exist in English. You read certain poems by the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet or you read the Hungarian poet Mikl—s Radn—ti, or you read Osip Mandelstam and Marina Tsvetaeva, and you're getting a whole different take on the world. . . .You read both for a sense of similarity and a sense of difference. You get something that's radically different than you are, and sometimes you get something that's radically the same as you are. And both are instructive."

"The Academy site introduced me to poets I would never have considered, because they're not often anthologized," says Forste-Grupp. "They opened my own reading up to trends and poets I had not ever heard."

One of the project's aims is to give teachers a way to incorporate the Internet into the study of poetry. "Students are very computer-savvy and computer-interested. Part of the idea is to give the teachers some technology skills so they can direct students interested in technology toward something literary," says Charles Flowers, associate director of the academy.

The website now contains seventeen classroom-tested curriculum units prepared by secondary school teachers, a teacher resource center, online forums, transcripts and syllabi from the summer institutes, and a national poetry map with state-by-state listings of poets, journals, poetry organizations, reading series, literary festivals, and creative writing programs.

"They are supporting teachers by providing curriculum modules--available free of charge--which are all laid out, and they're all very doable," says Forste-Grupp. "If you don't like an entire module or don't have enough time, you can just choose the sections that are most relevant to you and adapt it."

During the summer institutes, Colorado and New York City-area teachers attended seminars on topics that included how to read a poem, images and sound in poetry, poetry and mythology, thinking and poetry, poetry and the visual arts, and poetry and translation.

"The teachers all had this 'double consciousness' as learners who were also learning on behalf of others," says the poet Susan Stewart, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. "The session was like preparing a gift for them to take away--a gift made of thinking."

Each teacher developed a curriculum unit, tried it out in the classroom during the course of an academic year, and posted the lesson plan on the website. The lesson plans range from "The Literature of War" to "Maybe It's Not So Funny: Humor as a Device for Criticism in English Poetry."

"I feel like I'm really steeped in poetry like a teabag that hasn't been taken out," Forste-Grupp says. "But teachers tend to get stuck in a rut. To not solely subsist on a single textbook year after year makes teaching more lively and engaging."

"The project goal is not just to bring poetry up to speed, but to make sure it doesn't die out in up-and-coming readers," End says. "I meet English teachers all the time who are poetry-shy."

"One of the things I love about the Online Poetry Classroom is that it gives you the opportunity to talk this way about poetry and to carry it forward to teachers, who then carry it forward to other teachers, and so forth," Hirsch says.

"We did a survey of our membership recently and the results were pretty stunning. We asked who was most influential in the development of their interest in poetry and 48 percent said teachers," says Tree Swenson, executive director of the Academy of American Poets.

"Poetry provides food for the self," says Rachel Hadas, a poet and professor at Rutgers University. "It helps you to understand yourself--to write it and to read it--that's one of the things lyric poetry has always done."

Poets have concocted every manner of metaphor to describe the art they practice. Wallace Stevens named it the "necessary angel of our lives" and Emily Dickinson spoke of "Bolts of Melody." Marianne Moore writes that poetry presents "imaginary gardens with real toads in them."

"I believe a love of poetry is in our own nature--in our sense of rhythm, motion, and gesture, in the symmetry of our bodies and our sensory predilections, in the appeal of color, light, and whatever is inchoate in beauty," says Stewart.

"It has to do with consciousness, it has to do with feeling. It educates your feeling, and it educates your sensibility," Hirsch says. "If your inner life matters, then I think poetry is of great moment. If you think there's something important beyond political events, or social, or the news, if you think that interiority is important, and having your own private feelings, and having ways to think about your feelings--if that matters, then poetry matters."

About the Author

Funding Information

The Academy of American Poets received $130,000 in NEH support to develop the Online Poetry Classroom and workshops.