If you’re a parent or a teacher, chances are pretty high that you feel pressure to teach the children in your care meaningful skills. With so many of the standard subjects to cover and never enough hours in the day, is teaching poetry a waste of time?
Is teaching poetry a waste of time?
Before directly addressing this question, I want to take a moment to remember January 2019, the day the world lost the beloved poet, Mary Oliver.
As soon as I heard the news, time felt fuzzy and my surroundings blurred. Glancing over at my bookshelf, I spotted her book “Devotions” which I have read regularly over the years. She was 83 when she died and so logically, given her age, her death came as no surprise. But still, my eyes began to well and a heaviness settled in the pit of my stomach.
My tears were triggered in part by sadness, but mainly because of the overwhelming gratitude I felt for the life and work of Mary Oliver.
Many people claim that Mary Oliver is one of their favorite poets. She is certainly one of mine.
Her humility as a poet, her deep reverence for the natural world, and her ever-present gratitude for being a part of creation have served as inspiration throughout my life. Her words have connected, comforted, and inspired many, and I will always be grateful.
Over the years, I’ve heard many people argue that teaching poetry is a waste of time.
With so many “practical” skills to cover, like math, science, and grammar, who has time to devote to poetry?
And honestly, what’s the point?
Is teaching poetry a waste of time?
My gentle but firm response is that poetry is NOT a waste of time.
In fact, poetry is everywhere.
Poems don’t just sit on pages that Mary Oliver created. Poems are contained In the stories that we read, the music that we listen to, the songs that we sing, the performances we watch, and the quotes that we memorize and draw upon for inspiration.
Poetry is a form of expression, yes. But it can also be a tool and an anchor.
I’ve both read and written poetry on and off since I was a young girl.
Simple little rhymes of whimsy. Followed by poems serious in their bemoaning of unrequited love, (ah yes, those early teen years!) Free verse thick with rage and grief during tumultuous times…
Poetry has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.
I’m guessing poetry has been part of your life too.
Even if you don’t consider yourself a lover of poetry.
Think about it.
Reading “Cat in the Hat” aloud as a child. Reciting a part of “The Giving Tree”. Listening to a teacher or parent read from “Winnie the Pooh”.
The poetry of Dr. Seuss, Shel Silverstein, and A.A. Milne.
Maya Angelou knowing “Why the Caged Bird Sings” and Rumi reminding us that “There are a million ways to kiss the ground”.
Rhymes coupled with music become songs that you sing.
In the car with friends, belting out a tune with the windows rolled down. Singing and dancing, barefoot in the kitchen. Or a soft background melody while alone at home, sorting through the laundry.
A gospel choir. A duo harmonizing effortlessly. A soloist lost in the music.
Spoken word. Rhythm and rhyme, improvisation, and wordplay. Stories, monologues, hip-hop, rap, poetry slams…
So do I think we should “waste our time” teaching poetry?
I absolutely do.
Now if the mere thought of selecting some poetry to read (or listen to!) has you feeling overwhelmed, I’ve got some good news.
You don’t have to do much more than lay down a handful of books, play some music, and watch performance art. Just by doing any one of these things, you’re exposing yourself and your children to poetry.
And sure, it can be helpful to know various styles and technical terms, but that tends to happen naturally once we’ve been exposed to poetry. So no need to stress!
To give you a solid and simple starting point, I’ve got three blog posts to help you get started.
“Let me keep my distance, always, from those who think they have the answers. Let me keep company always with those who say ‘Look!’ and laugh in astonishment, and bow their heads.”
– Mary Oliver, Evidence: Poems
Rest in peace, Mary Oliver. You have left this world with so many heartfelt treasures and I am forever grateful.
Do you have a favorite poem? If so, please let me know in the comments below!