Sunday, February 16, 2014

A Poem By Any Other Name

In my email this morning was an article about how not to teach poetry. That got me thinking about how my feelings about poetry have changed through the years. There has been no love lost between me and that noble subject Up until I decided to throw away everything I had ever learned about poetry, I hated it. I feel differently now.

In grade school, on Friday afternoon, we had our introduction to Fine Arts. It was at this time that we learned about poetry and art. We had a tiny Picture Study book that introduced us to famous paintings, and our main mission was to memorize which artist painted which painting. I was never really good at that. I was more interested in the various genres, or styles of painting. We did this for 15 minutes each week.

The other 15-30 minutes of Fine Arts consisted of reading and memorizing poems. In the lower grades, the poems were mercifully short and sometimes evoked in my mind one of the pictures we had just studied. We were expected to match titles or stanzas to the name of the poet. Sometimes we were instructed to draw the scene described or to write a poem like the featured one.

In 7th grade, we were supposed to memorize poems such as the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Edgar Allen Poe’s The Bells, The Charge of the Light Brigade, and Paul Revere’s Ride.  I hated poetry in the lower grades but my 7th grade Homeroom teacher made it a game to memorize those looooong poems. She’d allow us 2 mistakes and if we could get through it with only those 2 mistakes, we got an “Angel Card” which was good for a night free of homework. Don’t you know I got an Angel Card for each of those poems that year! But to me, that’s all poetry was, memorizing.

In high school, I was fortunate to avoid poetry entirely until senior year, although technically, I guess the sonnets we had read in junior year qualified as poetry. My English teacher in my last year of high school crushed any love I may have developed with the introduction of sonnets the year before. I was often late for her class because the previous class was held in the basement on one end of the building and her class was on the 3rd floor at the opposite end of the block-long high school. Battling 2700 other students was usually a losing proposition when you only had 3 minutes to get from one class to another. So, at least twice a week, I had a detention for being late. Add to that her method of teaching poetry, which was a whole semester’s theme. We would read a poem and have to tell her what it meant. I was always told I was wrong, but she never explained how I was supposed to be thinking when I read it. Luckily, I was very good at essay writing, which was the second semester’s theme and I managed to pull a B for the course.

In the meantime, I met my future husband, who actually captured me with his poetry. He read poems to me from his book of personal poems, explained how some of them came about, and a bit later, wrote a poem about me. Me! Maybe there was something to poetry after all, that I just hadn’t seen until then. That thought stayed with me as I left the halls of my Alma Mater and went on to higher education.

College freshman, as it is all over the US, choose their classes after everyone else at the university. I had a double whammy that year, as the only gym class left was Field Hockey (I had never even heard of it) and the only English class left was Poetry. I did not go into my first collegiate year with high hopes, as I hated poetry and was one of the most uncoordinated people on earth.


Gym class was one frustration after another, as everyone else in the class had played on their high school team. The coach recognized my ineptitude with team sports and played me only when she HAD to. I was, however, a whiz on the rules and regulations and made a good ref. At our final in Hockey class, we had to volley the ball on a slalom course of orange traffic cones in a certain period of time, and then we had 10 chances to hit it into the goal 5 times. Although I volleyed well, I could not for the life of me get the damn ball into the goal. She gave me a D in the practical part since “I could see you were really trying.” My A grade in the written exam allowed a passing grade. I think she didn’t want me back another semester anyway. So, I had one of my horrible courses vanquished that year.

It wasn’t so easy to vanquish Poetry. 

The professor of our poetry course was a distinguished graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and had also studied at Oxford University in London, UK. She considered herself an expert and made sure to let us know, also. We read some great poetry that year, but once again, when asked to analyze it, I was an abject failure.  I was proficient at identifying the type of poem, the rhyme scheme, the imagery used, and had a personal connection with much of what I read. But I could not for the life of me get into the poet’s head and relate why he wrote the poem or what it really meant. Unless the poet had written down what they had in their head when they wrote the verses, I couldn’t see how I was supposed to get inside their long-dead heads to figure it out.

I haven’t mentioned up until now that I went 12 years to Catholic School, the last 4 years spent in an all-girls high school. Keep reading- this is relevant.

The first poem we had to analyze was a Walt Whitman poem. I knew nothing of Walt Whitman except we had a bridge and a school named after him here in Philadelphia. Turns out he was a pretty sensual guy and had some fairly raunchy (for the times) poems. I may have been the only one who hadn’t a clue about that. That poem, whose title I cannot remember, was about the sunrise across a lovely field of flowers, I could see that field, the fog lifting, the flowers tilting their heads toward the light, and the sun’s rays spreading its warmth across the scene. He really had a way to get it across, painting with his words. After we had all handed in our homework, the professor insisted that this beautiful word painting was all about sex! Oh Lord! What did I know about sex? I had just spent 4 years in an all-girls school and was now attending an all-girls university. When my paper was handed back, I got an F. It was only the second F I had ever earned in my school career.  I told myself I’d do better the next time.

But the next time, I got an F, too, and that poem was all about sex apparently. The third and fourth poems also had F’s associated with them, and were also sexual in nature. I finally called up my brother Tom who had successfully graduated from college years before and pleaded with him to teach me how to know if a poem was sexual in nature. My wonderful big brother explained what a phallic symbol was, and also told me about the missionary position and other things that might indicate that a woman was waiting for a man to have intercourse with her.  Suddenly it all made sense. We also discussed how the professor must be pretty frustrated sexually to actually see sex in every poem. Having spent my teenage years in an all-girls school did not prepare me in the least for all this. In fact, I don’t think we spoke about sex at all in those years, certainly no conversation ever mentioned sexual positions and phallic symbols!

Armed with my new knowledge about sex, I plowed into the next poem, eyes wide open for phallic symbols and the like. Guess what? I earned a B! The rest of the semester was spent not enjoying the verses I read, but delving into sexual nuances and positions. In the end, I pulled a B in the course but it did nothing to instill a love of poetry into me.

Much later, after I had graduated with a degree in teaching, I had an opportunity to take a writing methods course that began my new appreciation of poetry. I learned it didn’t have to rhyme, that there are many more forms of poetry than I realized, that it should invoke a gut reaction, and it didn’t have to hold any hidden meanings, sexual or not. 

Armed with that knowledge, I began to teach my classes about writing poetry and how easy it could be. To put your feelings into some verses and make your reader feel what you do was a powerful thing. We wrote poems about colors, vegetables, feelings, family, dreams, anything that could be imagined and put on paper. The longer I taught it, the more a part of me poetry became. Indeed, I have since written many verses with my students through the years. And often used songs and songwriting in examining poetry.

A few years before I retired, a former student spied me in the parking lot and came over to thank me for teaching her how to write poetry. She was a struggling learner in fifth grade with a learning disability. She said poetry helped her get her feelings sorted out after her brother was killed in a drive-by shooting. She didn’t think she would have been able to get past it otherwise. In fact, she informed me that she was teaching other kids in her class about writing poetry. The hug we shared as we said goodbye was mutually grateful.

So now poetry has been a good part of my life for more years than not and I cannot imagine life without it.  My daughter Karen is a prolific poet on the All Poetry website and I know it got her through some tough teenage years. I encourage everyone to try their hand at it, but do me a favor, please? If you want to write about sex, make it obvious, ‘cause I don’t want to go looking for any more phallic symbols. And don’t read too much into a poem. If you don’t understand it, ask the poet. If the poet is dead, don’t assume.




Using forceful verbs,

Flamboyant nouns,

Sprinkled with adjectives, adverbs

Illuminate the page with feeling,

Paint a masterpiece with words.

Let me hear your song.

Then tuck it away for later,

Share with someone special,

Or put it out there in the spoken word.

You are capable.

You are powerful.

You are worthy.

You are a poet.



  1. Any time, Tina! My pleasure. Vic had a real giggle reading it before I posted it.