Introducing Poetry

My students' initial reaction to poetry is always disdain: "I've never liked poetry," or "I just don't understand it," or even "do we have to read this?" I expect this. Like them, when I was a young reader, I had no interest in poetry. It confused me; there was a puzzle to it, and I preferred the straightforward approach to a traditional narrative fiction work.

 When I was in my early twenties, I received a free book (those can never be any good, right?) at an in-service. The book, Chicana Falsa by Michelle Serros, was full of poetry. To my surprise, Serros was at the in-service, and she read many of her poems. This was my first poetic love experience. Serros writes about her experience in California as a Latina that doesn't speak Spanish. She has dark skin, hair and eyes, but she doesn't speak the language as well as she should, and that is why she is "false". Her poems describe her frustration with her culture, her inability to please her grandmother, but her undying passion for her customs of food and family. She questions where she belongs. That had been my story growing up in a Hispanic community without the language that would mark me as a true Mexicana. For the first time I felt as if someone was able to articulate my feelings so profoundly. I read the entire collection in one night. Her poems made me laugh, cry and sigh with empathy.

 So what turned me on to poetry? A poet who described how I felt. Serros' poems touched at something very important and real in my everyday life. That is the point of poetry. It exposes readers to the truth about human experience; it communicates the argument with our own psyche, as Yeats said. It is useful -- probably more useful than any other literary form in its ability to describe humanity.

When assigning poems to students, I think the most important characteristic of the poem must be a universal theme. In other words, while I enjoy Robert Browning's “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister,” the message of moral hypocrisy may be too hidden for college sophomores. Besides, "moral hypocrisy" is not necessarily on the minds and hearts of young men and women when they are sitting in my class. But what is? Most likely love and sex... It's the truth. That is why I really introduce poetry with Dickinson's "Wild Nights-- Wild Nights!" or Shakespeare's Sonnet 116. The theme of love and desire is unquestionably interesting to students because they have all experienced it to one degree or another. They can relate to the feeling of eros, so when Dickinson's speaker proclaims he or she wants to "moor" in his or her lover, the students are able to appreciate (and widen their eyes at) the metaphor instantly. Or when Shakespeare compares true love to a constant star, the students (many for the first time) smile at something The Bard wrote (and I give myself a high-five in my brain). Because of poetry's bad reputation among students with poor reading habits, it's vital to create the first poetry assignment as one to which they can relate, a work that touches on some aspect of their lives they are already meditating on. Then they realize that poetry can be something to read again for pleasure.

Students are emotional readers; if it makes them feel good, they will put the effort in to all the other stuff us instructors want them to pay attention to: rhyme, metaphors, allusions, etc.
Here's a great article about poetry and its benefits from Edudemic.