Poetry and high school students

Plus resources for finding mind-blowing poems

I’ve been including more poetry this year in my high school English classes. I’ve asked students to write color poems, ekphrastic poems, treasured object poems, and others.

And we all have good reason to write more poetry… y’know, 2020 and its healthy dose of angst and apprehension, and yes, our hopes and dreams for a brighter 2021. However, if you need another reason besides 2020 to teach more poetry, here’s one:

Poetry is trendy.

More people — teens and adults alike — are reading poetry. “The share of adults reading poetry grew by an astounding 76 percent between 2012 and 2017,” writes critic Ron Charles in this 2018 Washington Post article. He cites a 2017 study from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) titled “U.S. Trends in Arts Attendance and Literary Reading: 2002-2017.” The results are even more dramatic for young people,” Charles adds, noting that during that same time period…

“The percentage of poetry readers age 18-24 doubled.”

Ron Charles, The Washington Post

That’s something to think about.

There are a few reasons for this kind of growth:

  • The rise of social media, most notably Instagram, where “Instapoets” like Canadians Rupi Kaur and Atticus, plus others, post verse regularly.
  • Poetry’s less defined “rules.”
  • Poetry’s capacity for acute personal expression.
  • Its connection to music, which permeates the airwaves, in addition to printed and online pages.
Instagram Poet Rupi Kaur inspires high school students to write poetry.
Instapoet Rupi Kaur | Baljit Singh, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Whatever the cause, I’m using poetry more in my high school English classes to offer students an additional writing discourse, to tap their creativity, and to provide them more exposure to the literary arts in general.

An added bonus: poems serve as great “text pairings” with novels, nonfiction books, and articles.

Poetry and my students

I’ll be honest. Poetry earns mixed reviews in my classes. Some students (especially the girls) enjoy it, others (usually the boys) not so much. Either way, though, no one has rejected it wholly. And I’m using that as a sign to continue to incorporate it into my class.

Here are some comments (used with permission) from a few of my students about the poetry we’ve been writing in class:

I really like to write poetry. I would like to do more in class, because it is short, but really deep and meaningful.
The poetry that we have written so far has opened up a chance for me to get myself writing more creatively. I don’t mind to be writing it at all.
No, I don’t really like the poetry we have been doing because I am not very good at writing it and thinking up stuff to use in my poems.
As to whether this student enjoy the poetry we’ve written this fall, this student wrote, “Not really, because it is hard to write poetry. I would way rather write a story or something of that type instead of poetry. It is hard for me to think of things to go in poetry.
I like poetry personally. I love to describe things in abstract ways. I love how you can make up silly, interesting things, and they make sense. I overall love it. Besides the ones with rules.
I have sort of enjoyed the poetry so far. I’d like to have more free-style poetry, if that make sense. I enjoy writing the most when there are less limitations.

Like I said, my students offered mixed reviews, including those last two comments that suggest some students like writing poetry — when they can call the shots. In fact, using mentor poems to formulate their own verse turns them off. Clearly, these students possess the confidence to craft their own verse without the need for a prescribed structure.

For other students, though, it’s a different story.

They’re not used to the lack of structure present in free verse poetry. In addition, they often have the misconception that their poetry MUST always rhyme. As a result, they become even more discouraged with the difficulty that rhyming adds. For students to connect with and write poetry, they must be able to dive in and express themselves. Counting syllables and forcing rhyme words onto the page ruins that.

As for reading poetry…

One of my biggest conundrums has been locating exciting poetry to share with students. For that reason, I’m always on the lookout for poetry that is original and unusual… that presents ideas in a way that catches our attention and invites analysis.

Graffiti that spells out the word poetry.
Photo: Unsplash

True, some students shrink from all that analysis and ambiguity, but I believe that many students simply aren’t accustomed to sophisticated writing that demands analysis. If it’s hard to understand, they presume that something is wrong with the poet or with themselves, the reader.

Encouraging kids to embrace confusion as they read difficult texts is a good reason to expose them to poetry.

But what is good poetry?

According to the Emily Dickinson Museum website, “Emily Dickinson once defined poetry this way: 

‘If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way?’

Emily Dickinson
American Poet Emily Dickinson
Emily Dickinson | Unknown Owner, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Finding poetry on a somewhat regular basis that truly astounds, touches, and perhaps, even perplexes us with its language, is difficult, but it can be done.

The easiest way? Subscribe to a free daily poetry email. I subscribe to The Paris Review Daily Poem. In the Review’s daily posts, I’ve discovered several awesome poems that I’ve used as mentors, interesting reads, or texts to pair with books and articles.

South Carolina poet Katherine Williams, whom I discovered on Quora, calls the following sites the “big three” for finding exciting poetry:

In fact, Williams writes that one reason some readers may find poetry dull is because they haven’t stumbled upon great poetry yet. “If you don’t love poetry, you just haven’t found the right stuff yet,” she writes in her Quora post.

That’s why I’ll keep looking for amazing poetry and experimenting with more verse in the classroom. As I discover new techniques and mind-blowing poems, I’ll send them your way.


Need a new poetry lesson?

Enter your email below and I’ll send you this PDF file that will teach your students to write treasured object poems, one of my favorite poem activities. I know your students will enjoy it!

Treasured Object Poems for high school students
Treasured Object Poems

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Published by Marilyn Yung

Writes | Teaches | Not sure where one ends and the other begins.

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