Teaching poetry as an outlaw and heretic

February 02, 2008

The powerful place of poetry in education and life


[This is an updated and slightly revised version of a column posted in May, 2003]

ANNAPOLIS, MD — Were I permitted to do so, I would teach my high school students nothing but poetry, not only during the month of April (national poetry month) but throughout the academic year.

I wrote this reflection in the wake of National Poetry Month in the United States in May 2003, and I still recognize that teaching nothing but poetry sounds a bit heretical, even to the literati among my colleagues at the private Christian school in which I teach.

In 2003, high school English and Journalism, along with “Creative Writing,” were my assignments as defined by the curriculum for 9th- through 12th-graders, and, frankly, there is much poetry that can be taught under the rubrics to which I’d been assigned. My English-teaching colleagues and I make forays into the worlds of British, American and international poetry. For these poetic opportunities I’m thankful.

But it isn’t enough.


We live in an era that masks and hides its poetry; in a time that disdains its poets; in a culture that dispatches poetry to the margins of consciousness generally classified as “nice” but not truly relevant. Poetry, while seemingly tolerated and accepted as a tradition worth visiting, appears to our culture as hopelessly irrelevant. To be sure, there is a subculture of poetry, mostly associated with a tiny portion of the academic world, where poetry slams and literary readings abound, but these fit better into entertainment calendars rather than into mind-shaping cultural movements and events.

In our world, finances, wars and personal relationships come and go with meteoric speed. The slowness that poetry demands often is perceived as ill-fitted to a modern mind. Poetry’s structured meanings often are seen as needlessly convoluted. For many, poetry–like its literary cousin, theology–has nothing to say to a post-modern world. Unfortunately, while many thinking Christians would balk at saying theology is irrelevant, they join the cultural mentality that relegates poetry to a category akin to dodos or unicorns.

Many educators, even those who love and teach literature, would begin to see problems with my suggestion that modern secondary instruction focus only on poetry. College preparatory curricula demand disciplined lessons in critical prose analysis, fact-finding, vocabulary and grammar as well as in a variety of writing styles and genres of literature. Our curricula are driven by an academic competition that cannot permit students to slow down, pause or take time for reflection in the midst of their studies.

This is where my notion of teaching only poetry becomes a bit radical. I endorse the words of contemporary Hispanic poet and teacher Alberto Rios, who in an interview called poetry an “outlaw” and noted that the art of poetry is “almost heresy.” His words are best quoted:

“And that’s in some sense what makes poetry exciting. It’s outlaw-like. It’s almost heresy. It’s saying, ‘Don’t go forward. Stop for a moment and understand where you’re standing. Just understand this moment.’ ”


Poetry makes us stop. Its brevity and its artistic presentation are to be savored and not raced past. Almost every teacher and textbook of poetry that I know suggests that poems must be read at least three times. I’d say at least five times, but that’s not the point. Good poetry should be read unceasingly, a suggestion akin to the Apostle Paul’s admonishment concerning prayer.

In the driving, hectic, achievement-obsessed world in which I live and work, brevity is known prominently in ads and sound bites. Savoring the lines of a good poem simply does not fit easily into a world occupied with Instant Messenger, video games, calculators, cell phones, reality TV, put-down comedy, lacrosse Moms and competitive athletic scholarships. There is no contemporary equivalent of Bart Simpson quoting poetry; there is no Bill Gates of iambic pentameter.

The poet and critic Robert Bly once curtly concluded that Americans haven’t grown up and are still singing nursery rhymes. Newspapers long ago gave up publishing poetry with any regularity, generally suggesting it lacks news value (Contrarily, The New York Times in 2003 began running poetry in its Sunday magazine once more, and if one currently searches The Times carefully, one can find news about poetry, but not a great deal of poetry itself). Aptly, poetry is an outlaw; it has become a form of heresy among the techno-economic worldviews that motivate much of modern culture.

Even in the evangelical Christian world in which I have worked, poetry largely is disdained unless it runs toward greeting card verse with some sort of evangelistic witness to a sinful world or chronicles the sinner-ego emphasis of a contemporary praise chorus. Check the popular literature of contemporary evangelical Christianity. I can’t recall the last time Christianity Today published a contemporary poem (in any of its stable of publications) or that World magazine interviewed a working poet. This seems a rather disjointed phenomenon, given that The Bible, the book on which evangelicalism asserts its rootedness, contains vast sections of poetry in its Old Testament. And some of Christianity’s most theologically rich poetic words crop out of the New Testament.

To be sure, there are Christian poets at work; however, their forum of expression lies in obscure little magazines. There are not many homes with copies of Image or Christianity and Literature on the reading stand. There are not many graduates of Christian schools looking for creative writing scholarships. Even in the wake of the so-called evangelical publishing boom of recent years, poetry gets little attention. The commercial success of pretribulation apocalyptic literature has not translated into more widespread exposure for poetry. Christian educators, I fear, have mishandled badly the importance of poetry in our lives.


Don’t read me wrongly; I’m not trying to be a Luddite calling for a return to pre-technological education (or to pretribulation education, for that matter). The famous poet W. H. Auden once made that mistake when he claimed the camera and the internal combustion engine had become the bane of modern life. What would he have thought of plasma TV and NASCAR? Nor am I on some pop-cultural crusade to have our culture recognize and appreciate the poetic voices hidden in rock music and rap (instructive though this might prove). This path, I think, may represent the poetic immaturity that Bly has identified with Americans.

Rather, I’m calling for recognition of poetry’s power to shape the mind and spirit. Therein lies the “outlaw” nature of poetry that Rios perceives. Poetry, I’m arguing, may be our culture’s neglected path to knowledge and wisdom. Poetry is the arena of philosophers and world-shakers, not the stuff to be banished to the “Kids Korner” like some ersatz Sunday School materials.

When I began teaching in a public institution many years ago, a colleague who taught philosophy insisted that his students read regularly from an anthology of poetry. The instructor had no interest in rhyme, meter or any of the traditional elements associated with poetry; he wanted students to grapple with ideas, and he found the most accessible grappling was with those who wrestle with words–the poets.

A journalist colleague of mine once told me that as a youth he read everything he could find written by Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg and e. e. cummings. Their poetry had a tremendous influence on his life, he said, especially during that critical search for identity that marks the transition from adolescence to adulthood. Unfortunately, he confessed to not having read poetry in several years.


This exposes a problem in our teaching of poetry. We treat it as a canon of wisdom that all must be exposed to in youth, but we neglect its power to challenge and shape our current thinking and opinions. The conventional wisdom seems to suggest we outgrow our need for poetry once we’ve moved beyond nursery rhymes and the so-called schoolboy poets, or once we’ve been force-fed Britain’s bards and poet laureates.

Or perhaps we fear poetry’s power.

When a group of poets scheduled to read at the White House early in 2003 were dis-invited because they suggested they might read words of protest to policies of war, we may have witnessed an unwitting nod to the power of creative poetry. Can poetry actually influence political and moral decision-making?

You bet your sweet sonnet it can! (And, by the way, the nation’s press that so diligently reported the dis-inviting of the poets made no effort to uncover what the poets planned to say. Their poetry couldn’t possibly have news value, the editors must have decided.)

In 2002, writing in the Christian Science Monitor, Ruth Walker made a gentle plea for a “marketplace for poetry.” She said, “ . . . I somehow want to connect Shelley’s reference to poets as ‘the unacknowledged legislators of the world’ with Jefferson’s preference for newspapers without government over government without newspapers. Would we be more wisely governed if we had more poetry in our daily papers?”

Walker points to a power in poetry beyond art.

In Rios’ words, poetry can force us to stop and understand where we are standing. Furthermore, we can learn from analyses such as that of former White House press secretary and PBS documentary journalist Bill Moyers, who in his book The Language of Life called poetry “the most honest language I hear today.


“Poetry is news,” Moyers asserted, “news of the mind, news of the heart.” So powerful is it, Moyers said, echoing Walker’s conviction, that “democracy needs her poets.”

My conviction holds that poetry is a way of knowing, an epistemology, for those with a philosophical bent. Poetry probes the mind and the heart in ways that science, technology and economics cannot.

In 2003, Margo Jefferson, writing in the New York Times Book Review, said under the headline “News from poetry”:

“As for the question of poetry’s role in the public realm, why does the United States seem to be the only country in which artists still argue about whether politics can coexist with aesthetic complexity? It can. And poetry can be the only sure conduit to emotional truths that politics has done its best to shut down.”

One could easily substitute education or religion where Jefferson wrote politics. (One could easily substitute economics or journalism or science or social science, as well.)

Just to set the classroom record straight: Is there a better way to learn vocabulary than to be exposed to great poetry? I think not. The syntax and punctuation of poetry demand an understanding of the structure of English sentences. One can learn an immense amount of grammar from studying poetry–and lots of other stuff taught in textbooks, too.

Allan Roy Andrews taught journalism in the high school at Annapolis Area Christian School in Maryland when he posted this essay. He can be contacted at aroyandrews@gmail.com

a) McInnis, Susan. ‘Interview with Alberto Rios,’ Glimmer Train. 26: Spring 1998. 105-121. Accessible at http://www.public.asu.edu/~aarios/interviews/page6.html

b) Walker, Ruth. ‘The marketplace for poetry,’ Christian Science Monitor, March 21, 2002. Accessible at http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1G1-84026550.html

c) Moyers, Bill. The Language of Life: A Festival of Poets. New York: Doubleday, 1995.

d) Jefferson, Margo. ‘On Writers and Writing: The News from Poetry,’ New York Times, May 11, 2003. Accessible at: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9B0CEFD61F3DF932A25756C0A9659C8B63&sec=&spon=

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