When I was in high school, I distinctly remember reading and learning poetry–and I hated it. This may surprise my students today because I talk about poetry with such love and passion, but it wasn’t always like that. It was evident that my students typically felt similarly about poetry: it was old, it was boring, it was confusing, not relatable. And when we look at the poets that mainstream curriculum or the canon really values, it’s not surprising why. The famous Robert Frost, Walt Whitman, W.B. Yeats, William Shakespeare, Percy Bysshe Shelley and the other poets that dominate our textbooks are overwhelmingly white, male, straight, and for lack of a more graceful word, dead. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying we shouldn’t teach these poets, I personally love teaching transcendentalism and Edgar Allan Poe, but these poets limit how we define poetry.
Firstly, addressing the representation–or lack thereof–in our classrooms is crucial. I find myself often debating other teachers when they claim we must teach the traditional literary canon, dismissing the diverse voices of women, people of color, LGBT folks, and their intersections. It is important to ask ourselves: what made the more dominant narratives “classics”? Why don’t we place as much value on marginalized voices in academia? And in turn, what message are we sending our students when their voices are absent, tokenized, or essentialized?
It is no wonder that our students do not relate to poetry and moreover, associate it with the past. Poetry does not just exist in the past and it does not belong to white men. Poetry fuels, empowers, inspires, and transforms our communities. We do our students a disservice when we give them a one-dimensional and inaccurate portrayal of the power and influence poetry holds.
This is why I teach living poets. I still teach Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes, and other poets as well, but it is important to show our students that poets do not solely exist in the past. I remember when I first read “Facetime” by Clint Smith with my students and they were glued to their papers, completely stunned that a poet was talking about iPhones in such a profound way. Their world is so rarely described as poetic, at least in the traditional classroom, and it added a level of engagement and interest that I have not seen otherwise. By teaching living poets, we are affirming the identities of our students, showing them that their experiences, culture, and generation are also worthy of beautiful rhymes, imagery, and analysis. It also provides a way for them to relate and interact with a text, engages their prior knowledge, and use these poems as mentor texts to write their own poetry.
Teaching living poets can be intimidating; unfortunately, there are fewer resources online about what and how to teach living poets. But it truly has transformed my classroom. We end our year with a poetry slam, my students memorize and perform a poem and have an option to write and perform an original poem as well. The first year I had a poetry slam, I had maybe two (out of 80+ students) perform an original poem. That first year I did not teach any living poets. My second year, I wanted to challenge myself as an educator and I started to teach living poets. During our end of the year poetry slam, about 75% of my students performed an original poem. While this may be attributed to lots of different factors, I have to believe that our study of living poets, the dissection, discussion, and debate we held for these diverse poets was a huge inspiration for all of my students.
For teachers who are new to teaching living poets, here are some of the texts that I used in my high school English class and some specific poems that resonated with my students:
- “what the window said to the black boy”
- “How to Make an Empty Cardboard Box Disappear”
- “From the Cell Block”
- “Ode to the Drizzy Drake Hands”
- “Love Poem #137”
- “Forest Fires”
Student favorites (many poems are untitled, so I have listed them by the first line):
- “i want to apologize to all the women”
- “perhaps we are all immigrants”
- “did you think i was a city”
- “what I mean when I say I’m sharpening my oyster knife”
- “Arrival Day”
- “I come from the fire city.”
While you may choose to have an entire unit dedicated to teaching living poets, I also find value in integrating living poetry throughout the year thematically. While unconventional, it’s not always necessary to go through every single poem as a class. I always try to leave space for students to explore poetry on their own–to find a poem they connect with, write about it, and then write like it. English class is about students learning to read, write, and speak, but it is also about learning about the human condition. It is about understanding, feeling, creating, healing. And I cannot think of a better way to transform the learning and lives of our students than connecting with the poetry that allows us and pushes us to look at our world critically, analytically, and beautifully.