Monday, April 20, 2015

I Was a Teenaged Poetry Hater

       I was a teenaged poetry hater.

       There. I said it.  I blame whoever threw together the literature curriculum for the many school systems I attended.

      Poetry was no big deal in elementary school. Maybe once a year our teacher would substitute writing a poem for a book report,  Yes, it had to rhyme.  Yes, it had to have rhythm.  Yes, I was awful at them. I think I recycled the same poem about a pretty kitty in the city every year.  

     When we moved to Mississippi when I was in fifth grade, I discovered we had a subject called "oral expression." (You can't make this stuff up.) Every Friday we had to memorize and recite a poem, the longer the better. That brought the natural ham out in me.  You haven't lived until you've heard 10-year-old me doing "Christopher Robin is Saying His Prayers"...complete with British accent copied from Herman's Hermits records.  I could always count on an "A" in "oral expression." I read a lot of poetry those years, looking for unusual choices (I just remembered another one..."Sea Fever" by John Masefield. Yep....another British accent.) I enjoyed the poetry because I could read whatever I wanted. However, all that reading didn't improve my poetry writing skills.  I was still using my "Pretty Kitty in the City" poem.

   Middle school let up on the poetry writing requirements except for the short and snappy (haiku and limericks). But oh the reading assignments. Someone on the curriculum committee had a thing for Longfellow and narrative poems.  We read "Hiawatha."  "Evangeline." "The Courtship of Miles Standish." I loathed them all. We had to keep voluminous notebooks of commentary on each one. God bless, Mrs. Stokes, my eighth grade English teacher who appreciated my snarky take on "Evangeline." At least I could put "Pretty Kitty" to rest.

    High school was more of the same. "Kubla Khan."  "Rime of the Ancient Mariner." When the school switched gears and allowed students to take specialized literature course such as "Modern Drama" and "Modern American Novels" I immediately signed up for all the courses that didn't involve poetry.  Goodbye, Longfellow. Hello, Faulkner.

     Fast forward many years. I am a high school librarian. I learn that every student is required to put together a poetry notebook, the major grade for the semester.  I, the librarian, am to lead my flock of students to the deep wells of Great Poetry.  I discover that these students are also weary of Longfellow.

   Flipping through the library's poetry selection, I re-discover a book that I read toward the end of my own senior year of high school, Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle compiled by Stephen Dunning and Edward Luedders.  These weren't childish poems, or poems written for teens.  They were just poems that could appeal to a teen. They certainly appealed to poetry hating me. They used plain English, sometimes slang. Sometimes they didn't even rhyme!  The poems were about flying saucers, The Bomb (the book was published in 1967 and is still in print) as well as more timeless thoughts on strawberries, popsicles and water sprinklers.  That collection got heavy circulation during "Poetry Unit" time.

     My favorite poem, however, is not fromWatermelon Pickle. It's by Gwendolyn Brooks. This is the poem I always showed "the dudes"....the boys who thought poetry was for geeks and girls. This one poem usually made them a believer, and sent them in search of more Gwendolyn Brooks.

     "We Real Cool."

     We real cool. We
     Left school.  We

    Lurk late.  We
    Strike straight. We

    Sing sin.  We
    Thin gin.  We

    Jazz June.  We
    Die soon.

     Years of "Poetry Units" introduced me to other kinds of verse, blank verse. Cinquains. diamantes, shape poems.  I have a whole new bag of poetry tricks that I use with my Young Writer's Workshops.  And oh yeah.  I have started writing poetry myself...the non-rhyming kind.

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman



Sandra Stiles said...

I can relate to your post. I am having my students write a poetry book right now. I grew up hating poetry because the small school I went to in Indiana was the one my parents went to. I was expected to be able to write poetry because I was a distant cousin to James Whitcomb Riley. I got so tired of being made to write poems about leaves every year. My aha moment came when I took a course in college and learned there were great poets out in the world. I try to share those with my students.

JoAnn Early Macken said...

So glad to see you've changed your mind, MA! I love the Gwendolyn Brooks poem, too!

mary ann rodman said...

Sandra,I feel your pain. It's good we found poetry we like, eventually. JA, Brooks' collection Bronzeville Boys and Girls (Girls and Boys?) was republished a couple of years ago. It's wonderful.

Jessica Reyes said...

that's a really great story. I also love poetry now so I can really relate. took english classes via skype at before I started making poems myself and now I make one or two every week.

Carmela Martino said...

So great that you're writing poetry of your own free will now, MA! :-)

jan godown annino said...

Appreciations for your change of direction with poetry Mary Ann.

Gre8t selection to share - I always appreciate a dramatic reading of "We Real Cool." It chills me to the bone.