We hear it around this time every year, that TS Eliot called April “the cruellest month” in the opening lines of “The Wasteland,” a Modernist poem of marked difficulty that few people who quote that line actually read. The reason that it comes up this time of year, of course, is that April is National Poetry Month.
National Poetry Month is our annual reminder that poetry isn’t dead, as some cultural critics have proposed in recent decades. Personally, I don’t think that poetry is dead. In fact, I don’t even think it’s all that bad off, considering our omni-mediated world where audiences of most art forms are splintered into small subcultures. However, there is enough serious concern about its vitality and popularity for the now-tired internal squabble to be argued over and over by its supporters and the practitioners. Still not knowing the answer after writing and reading all those essays for each other, the institutional types always seem to have some program or project that will redirect our attention to poetry, and many of those programs fall back onto the modern cultural curator’s tactic of choice: asking teachers to push it on schoolchildren. They do this not out of any malice or disrespect, but instead hoping that the art form can procure a fresh start with a new generation— and unfortunately ensuring that April will continue to be the cruellest month.
Yet, please don’t take from my comments that I don’t want poetry in schools. I do. Very much. However, I don’t want for schools to be the only places that have poetry. (Let’s be honest that many bookstores can’t even be depended upon for this, while ex-Trump staffers, emergent presidential candidates, and TV personalities gobble up book-buying dollars.) I also don’t want for April to be the only time that poetry is a significant feature in American education— or in American society!
Poetry does needs to be in schools . . . and in parks, and in restaurants, and in bus terminals, and in doctor’s office waiting rooms, and on billboards, and on TV, and in the movies— all of the places that visual art, music, dance, and drama are! Yet, poetry will only be in those places if we do more than just teach poetry in schools. Poetry has to come alive in daily settings, or it will remain something academic. We’ll be able to stop debating over poetry’s demise not when it appears more frequently in curricula, but when walking-around folks quote poets like they quote movies.
Schools are good places to hedge your bets, if you’re pushing poetry, but that can’t be it. My own roots in poetry were planted during school, but not because of any special annual program. In my junior year of high school, I was captivated by a theatrical performance of Spoon River Anthology, for which I built one of the tombstones in the graveyard set, and when assigned to write an analysis paper on a poet, I was allowed by the open-minded Mr. Clayton to choose the lyrics of Jimi Hendrix as my topic. During my senior year, our English teacher Mrs. Sells assigned us to memorize and recite the Prologue to Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in Middle English, and though I remember struggling to comprehend the nuances of a language that was a precursor to mine, I also remember hearing and feeling the rhythm in the Middle English lines. Moreover, long before Eliot, Chaucer declared not that April was cruel, but that it was the time to get outside after the winter had faded, when the green and chirping beauty of new life was emerging: “Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,” he wrote— “When in April the sweet showers fall.” That was something a seventeen-year-old Southern boy could understand, even in the fall of 1991, six hundred years after Chaucer’s death.
Twenty-three years later, in 2014, after earning two literary degrees, doing lots of writing, and spending ten years in the classroom, I caught sight of one of those poetry-themed essay in The Atlantic that I have continued to read, re-read, and reference, in part because its common-sense approach to poetry in schools comes from an actual high school teacher who is a writer too. Among the insightful remarks in Andrew Simmons’ “Why Teaching Poetry Is So Important” comes this one:
In an education landscape that dramatically deemphasizes creative expression in favor of expository writing and prioritizes the analysis of non-literary texts, high school literature teachers have to negotiate between their preferences and the way the wind is blowing. That sometimes means sacrifice, and poetry is often the first head to roll.
He’s right – also about how all teachers won’t be Mr. Keating in Dead Poets Society – but in the English 12 class that I teach, we swim in poetry. Unlike Simmons’ description of his own class, where “students have read nearly 200,000 words for my class [but] poems have accounted for no more than 100,” my students hardly read any prose until the third nine-weeks when we reach Frankenstein. Until then it is “Beowulf” and “The Seafarer” followed by Chaucer, Marlowe, Herrick, Donne, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Keats, with the only prose reprieve being a few of Malory’s Arthur stories and the factual/biographical sketches of the poets. After Frankenstein, it’s more poetry: Matthew Arnold, Tennyson, Eliot, and Dylan Thomas. And though it is necessary to get somewhat pedantic to help 21st-century high-schoolers with these poets’ cultural underpinnings, my ultimate goal is teaching them what poetry is by hearing the poems out loud, recognizing archetypal images and symbols, and looking to a poem’s form for insight on its function. Then, they will leave here with the ability to consider individual poems, any poems, old or new, in school or out of it.
Of course, I have students who are reticent, even resistant to poetry. There are students who only want me to tell them what it means so they can write what I say on the test and be correct. I can respect that. Despite being one of a few in my own high school classes who enjoyed poems, there are things I don’t care about, like video games. But I still won’t exempt them from the work, in part because Alabama’s course of study says this is what we’re doing, but also because leaving high school without understanding poetry will likely mean that it will never be a part of their lives . . . not in a society that relegates it to small venues and small presses.
Personally, I admire the perseverance and fortitude of poetry professionals who doggedly refuse to accept mainstream America’s incipient conclusions about poetry’s oncoming death, which are not declared by force of edict but through spending and consumption habits. (My son told me not long ago that people have spent fourteen billion hours playing Roblox over the last ten years. And to be candid, if I spent on poetry what I spend on craft beer, I’d probably be better off.) However, I also have to question the wisdom of continuing to use schools as the main mechanism for trying to get poetry into more places than just schools. Come April, instead of seeing more poetry resources for my students, I’d be glad to see a series of poetry PSAs on network TV during prime time or poetry ads on million-follower YouTube channels. I’d like to see a poet on the cover of an April Rolling Stone or as one of Jimmy Fallon’s guests. Say what you want to about the 1996 movie Romeo + Juliet with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, but that movie brought Shakespeare, who wrote in verse, to a lot of people. Poets, teachers ,and professors need to keep on doing what we do, but a more common-man approach in April might just expand poetry’s audience beyond the students who are required to attend the reading for course credit and the walk-ons hoping for an open mic and an on-the-spot evaluation of a spiral notebook.