Category Archives: Poetry

Can Poetry Help Us To Shape a More Just World?

Can Poetry Help Us To Shape a More Just World?

This is the fourth installment of the NCTE Citizenship Campaign, a blog series sponsored by the NCTE Standing Committee on Citizenship. This month’s theme is using poetry to spark civic engagement. It is written by Duane Davis.

My first instinct as a teacher of English and longtime member of NCTE was to put this month’s theme together through song lyrics.  This would likely have resulted in a deconstruction of the work of Kendrick Lamar, Tupac Shakur, and certainly a mention of Nikki Giovanni’s Poem, “For Tupac.”  I also considered an exploration of poetic justice through the lens of the current political assault on education.

Instead, I decided to ditch both of those ideas and use this space to discuss the work and life of the recently fallen poet, Derek Walcott.  In the proud tradition of “artist on the margins,” Walcott embarked on a journey to create a myth on the level of Beowulf and Virgil, in his epic poem Omeros. I have been fortunate in my life to have English instructors who exposed me to art that challenged my view of the world, my community and myself. In Walcott I found someone who spoke to the ideas that were circulating in my head: global racial formation and its effects on space, language, and identity.  If you don’t know Walcott already, here are some links to explore:

Walcott’s poem is epic and Afro-futuristic and magical realism and intersectional rolled into one.  Ultimately, he reminds us through his work that with art at the center, understanding and acceptance can be the norm and not the outlier. It is not enough to observe and comment on society. You have to enact and activate in order to seek the justice necessary for equity and equality.

As educators, we have to remember that our daily choices, from the greeting at the door (for all levels), to the selection of text, to the type of assessments we give, illuminate our beliefs about the world—who we read, how we interact and what we say.  To that end, I am also including a few links to national poetry organizations that encourage student voice and often through the subject matter explore issues of equality and justice.

While it is not our job to imbue students with our personal ideology, it is our job to give them the tools necessary to critically understand, reflect, respond and evaluate their world and their own ideology.  Poetry is a vehicle for reading and learning the views of others and exploring our own ways of seeing the world.

More Poetry Resources

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Poetry and Research in the Teaching of English

During National Poetry Month, we will be posting poems that originally ran in one of the ten journals published by NCTE. This poem “Tango” by Clara, a student working with Angela Rounsaville comes from Research in the Teaching of English:

tango

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Today, We Celebrate Shakespeare!

Portrait of English playwright, William Shakespeare
Portrait of English playwright, William Shakespeare

In 1564, William Shakespeare was born on this day. In his life, Shakespeare wrote at least 38 plays and over 150 short and long poems. Shakespeare’s plays can be divided into three main categories: the comedies, the histories, and the tragedies. The following from NCTE and ReadWriteThink.org provide more resources on Shakespeare’s plays.

Comedies

Histories

Tragedies

As author Ben Jonson wrote of him, Shakespeare is “not of an age, but for all time.”

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Poetry and Teaching English in the Two-Year College

During National Poetry Month, we will be posting poems that originally ran in one of the ten journals published by NCTE. This poem “OF ESSAYS AND EIGHT BALL” by Rick Kempa comes from Teaching English in the Two-Year College:

OF ESSAYS AND EIGHT BALL

She chalks her cue and swaggers towards me.
“Look hard,” she says. “Do you remember me?”
“Yeah, sure, you were in my class, when was it,
eight, ten years ago?” “Nineteen ninety nine.”
“Forgive me,” I say, “You’ll have to help me
with your name.”

Leona, of course! How good
it must feel to kick my butt, killing me slowly
the way I did you when I kept your essays too long,
trying to justify a C-minus, or groping for words
to dull the anvil blow of a D. (Funny how,
when all else fades, a grade persists like
a bad tattoo.)

She hunkers down, nails a combo,
takes a swig, and, grinning, sidles up to me.
“So what did you think of my last paper?”
“Well, I, uh . . . ” “Wasn’t that a kick-ass title page?”
Ah yes, now I remember, how the words arced
in 3-D script above a perfectly-centered
red syringe.

“I am telling you, that was the
best damn title page I have ever seen and
believe me I’ve seen a lot,” I say, and we
touch bottles in honor of the sentence fragment
and the scratch shot, the cue ball that soars into
a knot of drunks and the prose that falls flat,
the eight ball that threads the needle,
kisses the cushion, and topples safely home,
and title pages that stand the test of time.

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lindsayillich

You Mean She’s Alive?

This post is written by member Lindsay Illich. 

I get this question from students often when I share a poem in class by a living writer. For some students, poems are historical, discrete things that come to them by way of textbooks,  anthologies, or riddles of dead writers come to haunt them. Or worse, poems are inflicted on them as assessment instruments in standardized tests where students are asked to dissect the poems’ meanings (you can read about Sara Holbrook’s horror after discovering two of her poems were used on standardized tests in Texas). It does not always occur to them that the poet might be a contemporary who could be writing poems on this very day, or even right now.

The poems writers are sharing right now are beautiful and devastating, shimmering in their perfect singularity. Poets ask us to consider what it must be like to love a brother who is an addict (Natalie Diaz), to see a flower that might have been planted by the hands of Eric Garner (Ross Gay), to love someone more than all the windows in New York City (Jessica Greenbaum), or to be getting an MRI to monitor the spread of your cancer (Leilla Chatti). Not only do these contemporary poems and poets show students how poetry is uniquely suited to address emotional complexity, but also they demonstrate how it is poems build invisible bridges that connect people across time, space, and experience.

Poems overcome our separateness.

“Good Bones,” a poem by Maggie Smith, garnered a worldwide readership after it was published just after the Orlando Pulse shooting. Although the poem was not written in response to the tragedy, its sentiment resonated. Many felt that it gave a collective voice to how hopeless we feel in the face of violent tragedy. The poem was named poem of the year by Public Radio International and was featured on the April 9 episode of the CBS TV series Madam Secretary.

So where do you find these alive poets? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Subscribe to the “Poem-A Day,” sponsored by the Academy of American Poets, and get new (and some old) poems delivered to your email.
  2.  If you have the resources available to you, request institutional subscriptions to a few print poetry journals (like Gulf Coast, 32 Poems, or Prairie Schooner).
  3. Follow online poetry journals like Waxwing or The Shallow Ends on Twitter, where they post links to newly published poems.
  4. Finally, find some poets you like and follow them on Twitter. Poets love poems; they will share links and even pictures of poems daily (you should start with @KavehAkbar, a prolific lover, sharer, and writer of poems).

Another reason to read and connect with contemporary poets is to offer your students the opportunity to ask writers questions about their work. After reading a poem by Adrian Matejka, my students wondered why the poet identified with the boxer, Jack Johnson. It occurred to me that with Twitter, we could just ask him. So we did, and he graciously replied.

Yes, the poet is alive, and students will love her work if you share it with them. And, perhaps, reading the current work of living writers will serve as reminders to students that writing as a way of expression is a thing that people do, that even they could do.

Lindsay Illich is an associate professor of English at Curry College in Milton, Massachusetts. Her first book, Rile & Heave, won the Texas Review Press Breakout Prize in poetry.