One of my failings as an English teacher is my complete boycott of anything related to poetry. While I introduce students to some of the more famous poems for the chance to earn extra credit, I don’t assign poetry as required reading because it is often so foreign to my students. And I never assign poetry-writing assignments because, quite frankly, I don’t get paid enough to read rhyming love poems written by teenagers. Have you ever seen the episode of South Park where the Goth kids sit around reading their poetry to each other? Welcome to my hell.
My loathing of poetry can’t only be blamed on the fact that teenagers are perpetually in and out of love and only know three words to rhyme with “you.” It stems from a much older, deeper disassociation back in college when I took a graduate-level poetry class.
By that point, I’d already been teaching high school English for two years. I’d read every bad poem my students threw at me on wide-ruled notebook paper and endured their massacring of recitation of the required poems from their textbooks. I was sure this poetry class was going to restore my love of poetry.
I almost failed it. First, I would like to say, in my defense, that the professor had a real chip on her shoulder about education majors, as though we were only there wasting her time since we weren’t true English majors and therefore destined to become real estate agents after graduation. It’s not like there’s a ton of jobs that will let you really use a degree in literature unless you plan to rent a kiosk in the mall and help shoppers with their homework.
Another shortcoming with the class was the professor’s stubborn belief that poetry is not what you make of it. I had apparently been falsely led to believe that poetry was open to interpretation, that the words “speak” to each reader individually. Wrong! The professor expected literal translations of the poems and it had better line up with what the original poet meant by it.
Sadly, unless Emily Dickinson plans to sit her ass up and tell me what exactly she meant in the poem, “A Narrow of Fellow in the Grass,” I can’t tell you what she was thinking about when she wrote it. I can certainly tell you what Freud thought about it, and I don’t think this poetry snob wanted to hear that either. Then again, she’s an English professor, maybe phallic references about a simple snake poem are exactly what she wanted to hear.
Alas, the other part of our grade in the course came from our original poetry, always on a strictly assigned topic. This is where any hope of maintaining my grade point average went all to hell. When you have a room full of Ph.D. candidates who have debased themselves to not only let Master’s students in the class but also a public high school teacher at that, I learned that they don’t find anything funny. Nothing. Robin Williams, George Carlin, and Bob Hope could comprise the entire thesis committee, and these people wouldn’t even try to crack a smile.
And, gosh, do I love a good limerick.
I’ve written my grocery lists in limerick form. I’ve written get-well cards in limerick form and on one tasteless fateful occasion, a sympathy card in limerick. I’m pretty sure I’d been drinking.
English majors do not find anything at all amusing about trying out the different poetry formats in their class. They want free verse about how crappily men have treated women throughout history, not sonnets about what I had for dinner every night last week. Certainly there is no love for ABACA rhyme scheme on why Dr. Who is the best show on television or why asparagus is the best vegetable ever in the history of the world.
So every third class meeting when we were required to read our own pieces aloud for the group, then allow those members present to rip our compositions apart for their own sadistic amusement, I smiled in anticipation while clutching what I knew was going to be the most painful experience ever for my classmates. If you can’t play the game, change the rules.
I wrote one assignment entirely about fortunes I’d received in cookies from Chinese take-out. I wrote another composed around things I’d read scribbled on the bathroom stalls at work, and let me tell you, that was hair-raising enough and it was only from the girls’ restrooms. My favorite of all time, the pinnacle of my opus, was written entirely of lines from Days of our Lives and General Hospital. It wasn’t exactly limerick writing, but it was still fun.
What I learned from that one course was more beneficial to me as a teacher than in any education course in the seven total years I attended any college working on any of my various degrees: stop being an English Nazi. If a student’s favorite poem was written by rapper ‘Lil Wayne, go with it. If the only reason a student knows what happens in “The Tell-Tale Heart” is because it was made into an episode of The Simpsons, at least he now knows who Poe is. And if the only word you can think of to rhyme with “tomorrow” is “sorrow,” just don’t make me read it. Unless it’s a limerick. I do love a good limerick.