The Case for Poetry in Secondary ELA

Poetry tends to be polarizing among educators, parents, and students.  The word either makes a person smile or cringe.  But why is poetry so polarizing?  Some educators (and students/ parents) view poetry as an impractical accessory, not a necessity.  Some would even argue that certain poetry lessons are archaic and irrelevant in today’s classroom (iambic pentameter, anyone?) where nonfiction is taking center stage.  Nonetheless, poetry serves both a pragmatic and aesthetic purpose in the ELA classroom.  It enhances literary analysis and enables us to reflect upon the human experience. 

But why teach poetry and not a short story or a novel—or even nonfiction, for that matter? 

Poetry accomplishes in a few lines (or more) what it takes a novel 100+ pages to accomplish, what it takes a short story 1000+ words to accomplish, and what it takes an article 250+ words to accomplish.  The ability to say more in less space is precisely what makes poetry an excellent tool in the ELA classroom.  The economical nature of poetry enables us to read and reread a poem multiple times in a relatively short amount of time, and it also allows us the ability to allot more class time to analysis unlike a novel which takes more time to read, often leaving us with less time for discussion.  But just because poetry is pragmatic does not mean it is easy.  As we all know, poetry is economical with its words, punctuation, line breaks, and stanza breaks, and this word economy often causes poetry to be cryptic, confusing, and sometimes unsettling.  Perhaps it is the cryptic nature of poetry that feeds its dislike among the poetry-haters out there.  The fewer the words a piece of writing has, the more difficult it can be to decipher.

But poetry does more than just give us a faster route to assessing essential skills.  It feeds the human spirit.  It makes us contemplate the meaning of existence; it makes feel the rainbow of human emotions; it proves that we have lived.  Not that other modes of writing can't accomplish these same feats, but poetry can weigh heavier with its brevity and beauty.         

When I teach poetry to my students, I approach it like we would a Sudoku puzzle:  we look for the patterns; we look for how the symbols interact with one another; we look for the overall solution.  If we approach literature at large as a puzzle, then all genres and modes of writing have a purpose in the English classroom because they are all essentially exercises in critical thinking.  But no matter how many poems we annotate, analyze, and discuss, it is imperative that students have the opportunity to construct poetry as well as deconstruct it.  When students construct poetry, they experience how the writer weaves the elements and techniques together to form a theme.  Experience with the construction process can help them deconstruct themes with greater insight.  However, having students write poetry goes well beyond teaching skills.  It helps them process the complex emotions of teenager land-- that no man's land in between adolescence and adulthood-- that place where they don't really fit anywhere, except together.  And we as English teachers can give them that safe space to contemplate, reflect, and question.     


We'd love to hear from you!  What do you think about teaching poetry?  How do you integrate poetry into your curriculum?  Please leave us a comment!