Saturday, April 21, 2007

Will this poem make me look fat?

Last night I watched a tape of myself introducing a poetry project to students at Woonsocket High School. (This is for my beginning teacher portfolio. I don't just tape myself for kicks.) Tough crowd. It actually looks like I'm presenting to a crowd of comatose car crash victims. But I did eventually get them reading poems and looking for material for their project--mostly by pretending to be grading them when really I was just writing their names down on a random piece of paper with a dry erase marker.

Anyway, I collected citations for the poems they looked at and, after analyzing the data using an ineffable methodology, I came to these conclusions:

High school students ...
  • basically think poetry should sound like poetry (in other words, rhyme).
  • still like nonsense poems.
  • are shocked by poems with "swear words" or references to body fluids. Body parts are OK, just not fluids.
  • like poems written by other teenagers and are more likely to read these poems critically.
  • love the Tupac, Aaliyah, and Atwone Fisher collections.
  • are surprised to find poems about things like going to the pool, talking on the phone, skipping class, and accidentally having sex.
  • like their poems to be certified as "good" by experts--hence the popularity of Shakespeare, Longfellow, Neruda, and Robert Frost.
  • think that poems are written for specific groups of people. There are poems for girls, for children, for men (see Rudyard Kipling), for English majors, for gay people, for black people, and for old people. And if you try to give a high school student a collection of poems that's not "famous, overused, and misunderstood poems that rhyme, by old white men, a few women, and maybe some Rainer Maria Rilke," he has to check and make sure it falls in the right category--or he will actually give you some obvious piece of information, such as, "But I'm not a girl," or "I'm not Asian" (you need to be Asian to read haiku? really?).
  • prefer writing poetry to reading it. (I really want to know why it occurs to them to write poetry when they generally refuse to read it. Is the desire to write poetry something universal and subconscious? Does it meet a basic human need? Do people figure out how to do it the way they figure out how to have sex, even without experience or instructions, even if they were raised by wolves?)
  • are afraid to read poems out loud.
  • have a strong sense of ownership toward poems they can relate to. They'll tell you "that's my poem," the way they tell the DJ, their friends, or their car radio, "that's my song!"
  • are most receptive to poems that have appeared in films.

When you think about it, poetry actually taps into one of adolescents' greatest fears: the fear of being tricked into confessing something embarrassing. Poetry has all these inside jokes, allusions, metaphors, euphemisms, and double entendres. When students choose poems to read in front of the class, they want to be sure they're not accidentally communicating something embarrassing.

It's like when someone goes, "what is that under there?" and you go, "under where?" and they go, "You just said underwear!" I mean, that's the elementary school version. If you're in high school, they'll find some way to get you to admit that you only have one testicle or you're giving fellatio to your math teacher. And I think high school students are afraid that these poems are going to trick them in the same way. They're not comfortable with ambiguity, and that's why I probably shouldn't have used this poem as an example.

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