Why teach poetry

Teaching poetry is important, yet often neglected, writes teacher Andrew Simmons in The Atlantic.

. . . poetry enables teachers to teach their students how to write, read, and understand any text. Poetry can give students a healthy outlet for surging emotions. Reading original poetry aloud in class can foster trust and empathy in the classroom community, while also emphasizing speaking and listening skills that are often neglected in high school literature classes.

“Poetry can become a gateway to other forms of writing” by teaching “precise, economical diction,” Simmons writes.

However, discussing a poem can turn into an “in-class disembowelment of a poem’s meaning,” Simmons concedes.  Teachers are encouraged to teach a “process of demystification” rather than “curating a powerful experience through literature.”

In his poem “Introduction to Poetry,” (Billy Collins) writes:  “all they want to do is tie the poem to a chair with rope/and torture a confession out of it./They begin beating it with a hose/to find out what it really means.”

Teachers should teach “writing, grammar, and analytical strategies” — and help students  “see that literature should be mystifying,” concludes Simmons. Poetry, which resists easy interpretations, is perfect for this. 

About Joanne


  1. Meh. Modern poetry is like modern art, trying out new forms, uncaring as to whether it uplifts or creates beauty or flow in rhyme or meter, straining to push “boundaries” for no other reason than novelty, veiling meaning so well that one wonders whether is even a meaning worth ferreting out, etc. With modern poetry, we typically get neither auditory beauty nor clear conveyance of ideas. I’m no fan of rap, but at least rappers can rhyme and pay attention to meter. Taylor Swift became extremely popular as a teenager writing lyrics that people could connect with; humans crave connection and understanding, not eternal “mystification.” Even the sample poem up there from a former US Poet Laureate about torturing poems is just a single thought awkwardly broken up–with some shock value thrown in–to make it look like a four-line verse.
    I agree with teaching some poetry being important, but the self-indulgent drivel they push on us nowadays as “poetry” is usually a frustrating, dull waste of time.

  2. Michael E. Lopez says:

    You have to be able to sit the poem down and tear it apart, to find out what it means, before you can experience the poem in the way that the author intended.

    First analytic.

    Then synthetic.

  3. Ruth Joy says:

    Poetry for the K-8 crowd is a wonderful introduction to the power and beauty of language. Whether it’s Shel Silverstein or Shakespeare.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      “the power and beauty of language”

      Poetry was once a popular art form and that’s the reason. Now poets write for other poets and for English teachers, so very few people care for “poetry.”

      But poetry survives and thrives in song lyrics.

      • Michael E. Lopez says:

        I’ll grant that it survives. But thrives?

        There are a few gems here and there of lyrical competence, and even fewer of real genius.

        Mostly though, the more modern songs I hear on the radio are poetic disasters, filled with glaring and clearly unintentional contradictions and inconsistencies, stale and dying metaphors, and sad half-assed rhymes. Just a few examples:

        Imagine Dragons’ song, “Demons”, has as one of its primary themes the question of fate/determinism. Yet it seems to have been written by committee, because the author(s) just write whatever lyrics sound good to them without thinking. One second it’s “all up to fate”, but the next second he’s pleading with someone that he can’t do something or another “unless you show me how.” There are ways that this sort of juxtaposition can be interesting (you can “find” deep meaning in a third grade painting if you look hard enough) but it’s pretty obvious from the song lyrics that that’s not how they were intended.

        Don’t get me started on the likes of Katy Perry.

        Lady Gaga had a few moments under the influence of the Eratonian muse, but while her music is quite good, most of her lyrics are terrible.

        Lorde’s “Team” is probably the closest thing to good poetry I’ve heard in the last few years of music — and she gets MASSIVE props for rhyming “broke” with “fault” in a convincing way — but “Royals” is just as confused as “Demons”. Moreso, maybe.

        And this is supposed to be one of those “deep” sort of songs.

        What really makes my skin crawl, though, is that people listening to this stuff don’t know any better. They honestly think that it’s good poetry — because it’s “deep” or “passionate”.

        Now I admit, I am not a huge music afficionado. There are thousands of artists out there I’ve never heard of. Heck, there are entire genres I’ve never heard of. I’m relying on my listening to the radio, for the most part.

        So if there really are areas of music where poetry “thrives” these days, I’d love to know where.

        Until then, I’ll live happily in the late 60’s and early 90’s, when lyrical skill seemed to have been at something of a premium.

        • SC Math Teacher says:


          You are neglecting the early 80s influence of Buckner & Garcia and Joe Dolce. Expand your horizons.

        • Roger Sweeny says:

          I am tempted to relate the story of Theodore Sturgeon, who when asked, “Why do you wrote science fiction? Ninety percent of it is crap,” replied, “Ninety percent of everything is crap.”

          Okay, I just did.

          Yes, there are lots of bad lyrics, and there are periods when better lyrics are more popular. Most lyrics are not meant to be deeply analyzed. They are meant to grab you emotionally. Of course, that doesn’t mean they can’t have depth. I’m sure Homer was not trying to create poetry as material for a literature dissertation.

          Speaking of which … I’ll bet there was lots of bad oral poetry in the Greece of Homer. Would it be inaccurate to say that oral poetry thrived then and there? (I suppose the answer to that is the same as the answer to so many academic controversies, “It all depends on what you mean by that word.”)