Post #24: Take this Poem, and Listen to It

Alan Heathcock, a writer I admire, recently wrote a fabulous short essay for NPR about reading a poem a day to quiet his mind and steady himself against the bustling life he (and we all) leads.

I listened to the audio version of Alan’s piece while waiting for the shower to warm up (it’s short) and it made me think of a similar practice I enact in my teaching life.

A few years ago, feeling that I wasn’t exposing my students to enough poetry, both because I wasn’t feeling terribly confident at teaching poetry and because I’m always feeling pressed for time in my work and find formal exploration of poetry incredibly time consuming, I began the practice of reading each class a poem before we started the day’s work.  I read them Billy Collins.  I read them Langston Hughes.  Robert Frost.  Carl Sandburg.  Emily Dickinson.  Major Jackson.  Alan Ginsberg.  Elizabeth Bishop.

We don’t discuss the day’s poem.  I don’t ask the students what they think it means.  In fact, there’s an unofficial no interpretation rule.  I ask for nothing from the students but their open ears.  Even half open will do.  After all, one of poetry’s great pleasures is its aural gifts and once you begin reading poems out loud, taking your time and savoring the language, you’ll soon begin asking yourself why you ever would read them any other way.

Once in a while, my students react to the poems.  One will nod appreciatively, another will give a small compliment to the author, or even rarer, to me as the reader.  But I don’t mind admitting that mostly they don’t respond at all.  I say the  poem title and the author’s name before reading and again when I finish, and then off we go into class, the poem quickly behind us.  When I first started doing this, I felt a little self conscious when I’d catch students staring off into space or scribbling in their notebooks or even scuttling past me to their seats after arriving tardy while I read.  But I quit worrying about that, tried to remember why I’d started reading them a poem a day in the first place.  For its simple pleasure.  For the reminder it gives about poetry’s immediate, often unexpected, joys.  In an environment where they’re constantly being pushed and scrutinized, urged to think deeply, it’s nice to get a break.  And I like reminding them, and myself, that poetry can provide that.  Even if we don’t fully understand what we just heard.

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