Monday, April 5, 2010

National Poetry Month--I Don't Get It.

 It's National Poetry Month.

It's my turn to post, and National Poetry Month is my topic.

I  am the least qualified of the TA's to write about poetry.

I don't write poetry.

I don't read poetry (much).

Poetry intimidates me.

I don't understand most of it.

I am in awe of those who can take small moments, and turn them into a perfectly realized epiphany, complete with symbolism, metaphor and sometimes rhyme and meter.

Alas, I am not one of them.

What follows is in no way an indictment of teachers or teaching, past or present. I am just sharing how I came to fear poetry.

I had some Old School elementary teachers who believed that memorization was a way to exercise mental muscle. Every Friday, each student was required to deliver, from memory, a poem of at least eight lines (the longer the better). This showed up on my report card under the subject Oral Expression.  Seriously.

I am a great memorizer, and memorizing something with rhyme and meter was as easy as turning on the TV. Not only were there the Friday Recitations, there were pieces the entire class was required to learn. The opening of "Hiawatha." "Paul Revere's Ride." All four verses of  "The Star-Spangled Banner." (The other three don't scan nearly as well as the first.) I remember all of them.  (To liven up college frat parties, I would recite "Hiawatha" in under a minute. A real party animal.)

Yeah, I loved poetry.  Until I was asked to write it. For a grade. And it had to rhyme.

It was the only time I can recall hating a writing assignment. I couldn't rhyme. If it was haiku, I couldn't come up with the right number of syllables. I couldn't think in terms of "small moments." My mind was all about fiction. Big pictures. Epics.

In junior high, some warped being in the state office of curriculum decreed that seventh graders would spend six weeks with "The Courtship of Miles Standish" and eighth graders with "Evangeline." If there was anything worse than a short poem I didn't understand, it was a long, narrative poem that was BORING (to a twelve-year-old.) Somebody In Charge had a thing for Longfellow.

From "Evangeline," it was on to those pithy nuggets in my high school literature book. Amy Lowell's "Patterns."  "Auto Wreck" by Karl Shapiro. "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" still gives me nightmares. I didn't understand the metaphors. I couldn't see the symbolism. The words sat on the page, leering at me, refusing to yield their secrets.  Never in my entire life, had I felt so incredibly dumb in a literature class.

I didn't get it. I just didn't get it!

I am pretty sure I was the only teenage girl who didn't write poetry. Novels, short stories, essays....yes. Poetry, no.

I have come to appreciate a few poets today. I love the work of my fellow TA's. I  love the verse novels of Karen Hesse, Virginia Euwer Wolff, Ron Koertge, Nikki Grimes, Ellen Hopkins. I love them so much that I have been trying to write my own verse novel.  For the last ten years.

I guess I am still intimidated by verse, rhyming or not.  Maybe some day...

But for now, Happy Poetry Month!

Mary Ann Rodman


Carmela Martino said...

Thanks for sharing so honestly, Mary Ann. It's important for teachers like me, who have their students write poetry, remember that writing in rhyme isn't for all writers.

Irene Latham said...

Mary Ann, keep going with that verse novel!! Verse novels are one of the best ways to turn the masses into poetry lovers... or at least better appreciate the beauty of short, accessible lines.

Sandra Stiles said...

As a teacher I want to say thanks to you for your honesty. I too hated writing poetry. Get me extremely worked up and emotional and that is what pops out. Intimidating? I grew up in Indiana in a small town. I am related to James Whitcomb Riley and had teachers spouting, "What do you mean you don't write poetry? It should come natural to you because of who you're related to." One thing I try to teach my kids is that it doesn't have to rhyme. I try to be open and give them many examples. Keep at it. You already inspire so many.

mary ann rodman said...

I felt that I was really taking a chance in admitting my poetry illiteracy. Sandra, I totally feel for your unique situation. Irene, thank you for the encouraging words, and you are absolutely right...verse novels gave me hope that I could crack The Poetry Code (far more baffling than the Da Vinci Code).
Speaking of verse novels, I forgot to mention that yesterday was the beginning of baseball season (a sport I DO understand and love!). May I recommend two YA verse novels that make poetry more accessible for me (and some of it even rhymes!). They are SHAKESPEARE BATS CLEANUP and SHAKESPEARE MAKES THE PLAYOFFS, both by Ron Koertge who uses a variety of poetic forms to tell his story. Batter up!

Ron Koertge said...

Mary Ann,

Nice to see your name in print this way, too!

Happy Poetry Month! And, should anybody ask, my is 4-22. 70 this year. Yikes!!

Ron Koertge

Carmela Martino said...

Ron, how nice to hear from you. Your birthday happens to coincide with our Blogiversary (and Earth Day)! I never would have guessed you're turning 7-0, though.

And I hope everyone has been following April's Poem-A-Day challenge. If not, go to and be truly inspired! (I'll post the link again when it's my turn to blog tomorrow.)

Jeanne Marie Grunwell Ford said...

Oh, Mary Ann, I'm so with you! Though I remember loving Shakespeare's sonnets, the Canterbury Tales, Emily Dickinson, and Christina Rosetti. Oh, and Idylls of the King because I just love all things Camelot. Maybe high school wasn't so bad, after all.

Happy Birthday, Ron!