Essay: “Bringing Poetry Back Home”
*This essay was originally published Multicultural Review in 2009.
Poetry can be a dirty word in a high school classroom. If the teacher says it – “We’re going to begin poetry tomorrow.” – he will often hear sighs and complaints: “Aw man . . .” with the possible exception of maybe a student here or there who likes it. And that’s a real shame, too. Many secondary English teachers come to their work through a love of literature – in some cases poetry, though some not – and to have this thing that we enjoy to be so maligned is hard to take. I remember reading Allen Ginsberg’s poetry for the first time, in my late teens, and loving it . . . and I remember disliking “Beowulf” and “Paradise Lost” as much as any seventeen-year-old senior ever has.
Granted, most of us can’t teach Allen Ginsberg’s poetry instead of the classics, but there is a lot of poetry that we can teach that will reach our students who come from working-class backgrounds in a way that a lot of verse may not. What makes Ginsberg’s poetry so accessible – and what drew me to it as a young man – is the almost brutal honesty and the evident tension, which are also two aspects of life in working-class households and neighborhoods. But Ginsberg isn’t the only poet who achieved those things. Etheridge Knight wrote haiku while in prison, and John Beecher wrote historical narratives on labor and racial struggles. Tension keeps readers interested; it is the reason that conflict is so important to literature. As for honesty, the late June Jordan wrote, “You cannot write lies and write good poetry. Deceit, abstraction, euphemism: any of these will doom a poem to the realm of ‘baffling’ or ‘forgettable’ or worse.”  Honesty and tension are the keys. It’s hard to lose a reader, from any social background, if the work has those two things.
On a similar point, if we do have students who enjoy poetry, it is probably their own. Many people, young and old alike, write poetry, but a rare few seem to enjoy reading it, as evidenced by comparing the sales of poetry books to novels and nonfiction. Several years ago, a friend who has worked for years in bookselling, in both independents and chain stores, told me that there are about 10,000 avid poetry readers in the United States. I don’t know if he was right or not, but if he was then that is about one-in-30,000 Americans. But there is no shortage of poets, including amateur ones: the teenager in black clothes scribbling in a sticker-covered composition notebook, the elderly lady still trying to write that perfect sonnet after all these years, the guy who goes to open mic night at the coffee shop. What brings people to poetry, generation after generation, is the beauty of the harmonious sounds in words, as in rhyme, coupled with the opportunity to state something bold or witty in relatively few words. Someone writing a novel must sustain a narrative for many pages, but a person writing a poem sees the chance to say something meaningful and musical in a small space. Yes, poetry production is thriving in modern America . . . but the consumption of it is pitifully low.
In his essay, “Caste, Class, and Canon,” critic Paul Lauter proposed that people in the middle-class who write poetry do so for personal satisfaction during leisure time, while working-class poets tend to use their work to unify people— unity being the force the working-class has against the powers of a capitalist system. If Lauter is right – and I believe that he is – working-class poetry is inherently different, in both form and content, from the poetry of the middle-class and the wealthy, who are not writing to fight social injustice.
The tradition of working-class poetry did not begin in the 1920s and 1930s, but that time period was one of its heydays. Poets like Carl Sandburg and Langston Hughes had an obvious social consciousness in poems like Sandburg’s “Chicago” or Hughes’ “Harlem.” They wrote some timeless poems about hard-working people facing social and political struggles. Adding to these two men, Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die” is an anthem of unity against authoritarianism and inequality.
Following those poets and others of their time, another prominent group of poets appeared to the American mainstream: the Beats. These more popular, less academic poets were the next generation of working-class poets, producing work that revealed their emotions, grievances, and desires often in embarrassingly frank terms, giving voice to the outsiders in society. They had come from working-class families with their share of struggles with limited resources. Notwithstanding my personal affinity for the Beats, their first-person assaults on institutions, public and private, and on middle-class standards of decorum have left them out of many textbooks and classrooms. Continuing to use Allen Ginsberg as an example, the line “Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb” in the poem “America” makes a very powerful political statement, but one that would be hard to carry off in a classroom. (And the poem would not be the same with that line and others like it censored out.) One unfortunate legacy of the Beats is that some aspiring poets have failed to see the unifying element of social consciousness in the Beats’ poems, instead replacing it with the superficial notion that any surly, gushing confession written ungrammatically and broken into lines must be equal in quality. The Beats were writing to praise nonconformity and freedom and to express dissatisfaction with an intolerant culture, not simply to shock readers by bragging about deviant behavior. Similarly, when the next generation of popular non-middle-class poets, the rappers of the 1980s and 1990s, brought a social consciousness about the gritty facts of urban poverty into middle-class mainstream culture, this misconception – that poetry is nothing more than spilling your guts in shocking language – was reinforced further.
Now, try to teach the working-class audiences with those ideas about poetry to appreciate the nuance of T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” or Ezra Pound’s “In A Station at the Metro” or Wallace Stevens’ “The Idea of Order at Key West.” The result is usually confusion followed by open hostility that these poems are “too hard” or “not any fun.” These complex works that require multiple readings and explication “take the fun out of it,” I often hear. But what a grand notion: that even after nearly a hundred years of the poetics of “fragmentation” and existential angst, so many people still see poetry as something they should enjoy! Granted, some students’ resentment is rooted in the realization that writing “good” poetry takes work and that a powerful poem probably can’t be dashed off in ten minutes over a latte in a distractingly crowded coffee shop. In our fast-paced world of Internet news sources and music videos on two-inch-square screens on cell phones, the idea of reading anything more than once to dig for meaning is just crazy! So much modern poetry is losing the culture war.
So teachers of working-class students should scrap those kinds of poems. Yes, you’re right (on one level) if you’re protesting. Those of us with post-secondary education in English language studies know what people are missing when they won’t give great modern poetry a chance . . . but start with baby steps.
Instead, secondary-school teachers of working-class students should start off by having classes study some modern, culturally relevant material that is useful as cultural self-examination. In a study done in May of 2008, the Michigan Education Association found that more than half of high school dropouts left school because they found no relevance between what they got in school and what they saw in real life.  Another study done by the Gates Foundation in 2006 stated that about half of dropouts cited a lack of interest in their classes as a reason for dropping out.  Making a connection between poetry and real life requires discarding the notion that secondary education is college-prep job training that should reify middle-class values, like the idea that the only things worth learning are things that help us earn money. We have to put out of our minds the idea that everything we teach has to help them fit in with middle-class norms. That view of education – we make good grades in high school to get into a good college so we can get a high-paying job and make the money to buy things that will make us happy – is a far-flung myth for many students, especially ones from working-class and low-income families. Teaching poetry, the right poetry, to those working-class and low-income teenagers – ones that have stayed in school instead of dropping out – will give them something no job or paycheck ever could: an affirmation of the validity of their own community and their own culture.
What made poetry a great art form to begin with was its communal nature. Ancient epic poems, like the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey,” were pleasing to the ear for listeners and were easier to memorize for the people that carried them in that oral tradition. Poems held the stories that held the community together in a common tradition, like the medieval French hero Roland nobly saving his king and country, or the Italian, Catholic poet Dante Alighieri who traversed Hell and Purgatory to reach Heaven.
Somehow that communal ideal got lost when the trends of modern poetry became so highly personal, as typified by the Confessional poets who sought therapy in poetry. Returning to the points about honesty and tension, though Confessional types of poetry do have honesty and tension, they less often give readers what they expect: relief from that tension in the end. In “Beowulf,” we are relieved to know that Grendel is dead, that the threat is over, but in Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy,” the speaker’s hatred of her father continues to the very last syllable. The tension that Plath creates is never relieved. We, as teachers, can choose poems that have honesty and tension, while passing up T.S. Eliot’s hopeless finality in “This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper” . I certainly do not advocate educating a generation of naïve idealists, but with everything going on in their lives and everything they see and read, is their English teacher’s choice of poems going to negate all that? No.
Providing examples of culturally relevant poetry will help many more students enjoy poems, which in turn will allow them to be adults who may still like reading it. By choosing poems that students can identify with, we can truly educate them about poetry, rather than utilizing a curriculum that often results in revulsion and misunderstanding. Teaching in an Alabama high school, I have a high percentage of African-American students, and it is hard to find many who have never heard “Life for me ain’t no crystal stair . . .”  There is immediate recognition in their eyes when those lines come up; and not only that, there is an immediate recognition in the eyes of the white students how significant this poem is for the African-Americans in the class, a fact they may not have known previously.
So what are my suggestions? I have a few.
Some of the poems I suggest are not commonly anthologized, but I have made sure to include several that are, in order to make their use feasible. Teachers have limited resources and funds and having to buy a trade book for one poem is unreasonable in many cases. Ishmael Reed’s quasi-textbook, From Totems to Hip-Hop: A Multicultural Anthology of Poetry Across the Americas, 1900-2002, has an excellent selection of poems in it, as well as another feature that makes it attractive to teachers: its retail price of $17.95 in paperback. Among the 560 pages in the book are several shining examples of the cultural relevance I described above. “Sun Yat Sen Comes to Lodi” by Alan Chong Lau centers on the speaker’s chagrin that he has lost his roots in his native culture, as he looks at a photograph from the past of his Chinese grandparents who have come to California. “Six Families of Puerto Ricans” by Terence Winch describes the dismay within the speaker’s neighborhood when immigrants begin to move in and change the face and character of their community. “To My Sister” by Jannifer Traig deals with the ongoing dynamics between siblings.
The first poems from a trade book by a single author that I suggest are very strong modern poems, “Advice” and “The Fruit House,” by Southern poet Rodney Jones in his book Elegy for the Southern Drawl. The first poem tells a framework story by the narrator, who speaks directly to the reader, who is presumptively seeking advice, about some advice his grandmother gave his mother based on a now-deceased uncle who had his arm severed in a railroad accident. The poem is loaded with humor, as the uncle attempts to end the phantom pains in his missing arm. I have very few students who don’t laugh at this poem. The second poem is about a boy who gets accidentally locked in a storage shed, where the darkness frightens him, as he is helping store canned vegetables and fruits. Jones treats the episode with a boyish charm, having the narrator try to talk himself out of being scared. Both poems are accessible and enjoyable, while portraying working-class situations.
The next suggestion is a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks called “A Song in the Front Yard.” An African-American poet who died in 2000, Brooks is a fixture of modern poetry whose work has been published since mid-century. In this particular poem, the speaker, a young girl, wants to play in the “back yard” where life is seedier. She wants to experience some of the things she is being warned against. The poem is written in common language and is fairly easy to understand. Rather than being rooted in a traditional narrative style, “A Song in the Front Yard” is built on images of urban poverty, which will be familiar to some students, and deals with the difficulties of traversing those challenges daily. Brooks also includes a little humor in the poem, telling toward the end that a neighborhood boy has stolen and sold their back gate! This poem is very accessible to teachers, as it has been anthologized regularly and is also available on some websites.
My fourth suggestion has a more rural and historical basis: John Beecher’s long narrative poem, “In Egypt Land,” originally published in 1940. The poem tells the true story of a bi-racial union rebellion in Notasulga, Alabama, in 1932. Local African-American sharecroppers fed up with unfair repossession practices by white landowners and lawmen stand up against one such attempt with bloody and fatal results. Their white fellow union members were not included in the shootout. Beecher uses foreshadowing heavily, along with archetypal imagery like storms, to create a prolonged tension, giving the reader some sense of the certain death these men knew they were facing. Teaching this poem, which is also written in very clear common diction, will probably require multiple class periods. Though Beecher provides no happy endings in this poem, the characters facing inequality and insurmountable odds will strike a chord with some students. Though this poem is exceptionally powerful, it is also hard to find; only one book of Beecher’s poems, One More River To Cross, is in print and he is rarely included in anthologies and textbooks.
For a final suggestion with less hostility than Beecher’s poem, “Yellow Light” by Hawaiian poet Garrett Hongo is also solid choice. Appearing in Hongo’s collection of the same name, “Yellow Light” combines an urban scene of a woman coming home from work with groceries and a poetic motif similar to Amy Lowell’s “Thompson Lunch Room – Grand Central Station: Study in Whites.” Hongo carries his main character through multicultural scenes, all bathed in their own yellow tinge. The woman’s tiredness is evident and she may be quite identifiable to many students as the mothers, aunts, grandmothers and sisters that they have in their families.
Of course, there are thousands of poems that a teacher could choose. Unfortunately, because textbooks are often so inadequate with regard to poetry, especially modern working-class poems, some teachers may have to purchase or borrow trade books to have access to poems like the ones I mention. Also very unfortunate is the fact that poetry holdings in media centers are usually very scant and often represent the types of canonical poetry that many twenty-first century students don’t like, like Robert Frost (admittedly something of a working-class poet himself). Two internet options for finding free searches for poems to study are the websites for: the Poetry Out Loud program (www.poetryoutloud.org) and the Academy of American Poets (www.poets.org). Personally, I advise against subscribing to literary journals as a source for getting poems to use in high school classrooms, because many journals only publish two issues per year and may not come when the teacher needs them, and because poems with adult themes and language (that teachers won’t want their students to find while browsing) often appear in their pages.
Poetry is a vibrant art form in modern America. And it has tremendous power that is often untapped. A myth exists that everyday people don’t like poetry, and that myth starts in school when students read, study, and explicate difficult poetry with obscure nuances. I use the word “myth,” because it is a fabrication of a perceived reality that we seem to buy into fully. The truth is some poems, even very good ones, drive many people away from the art form, while other more accessible types of poems are excluded from formal study in schools, thus drawing a line between “poetry I study in school” and “poetry I like.”
American society would benefit from a change in the way that poetry is taught, away from analysis-driven approaches and toward what is usually called “appreciation.” Helping students identify with poems that render scenes similar to their own lives first will help many working-class students in public schools all over America, understand poetry as something for everyone, not a high culture art form like opera or classical music. Our education system should help produce literate people who are not cut-off from poetry, which discusses matters of our basic and common humanity. What must first occur is divorcing our ideals from the middle-class notion that education leads to money, which buys happiness. Poets don’t make much money. They never have. And, after all, rich people aren’t always happy either.
Coles, Nicholas, and Janet Zandy, eds. American Working-Class Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Reed, Ishmael, ed. From Totems to Hip-Hop: A Multicultural Anthology of Poetry Across the Americas, 1900-2002. New York: Da Capo Press, 2002.
Bridgland, John M., John J. DiJulio, and Karen Burke Morison. “The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts.” March 2006. Civic Enterprises. <www.silentepidemic.org>.
Crohan, Catherine, and Lyn Miller Lachmann. “On Poetry, War, Language and Baseball: An Interview with Martin Espada.” Multicultural Review.
Lauter, Paul. “Caste, Class, and Canon.” A Gift of Tongues: Critical Challenges in Contemporary American Poetry. Eds. Marie Harris and Kathleen Aguero. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987.
Nelson, Cary. “Multiculturalism without Guarantees: From Anthologies to the Social Text.” The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association 26.1(Spring 1993): 47-57. JSTOR. 11 May 2008 <aumnicat.aum.edu:2084>.
Muller, Lauren and the Blueprint Collective. June Jordan’s Poetry for the People: A Revolutionary Blueprint. New York: Routledge, 1995.
 June Jordan’s Poetry for People: A Revolutionary Blueprint
 Detroit Free Press
 “The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts” March 2006.
 “Hollow Men” by T.S. Eliot
 “Mother to Son” by Langston Hughes
Note: Multicultural Review has ceased publication. The essay appears here with only minor revisions for clarity or style.