“Today,” I announce enthusiastically to a school hall full of fidgeting Year 8s, 9s and 10s, “we are going to be doing… poetry!”
My professionally beaming smile is met with 350 horrified expressions, and then my ears are filled with the sound of 700 eyes rolling in defiantly gloomy skulls.
This is a typical day for me.
Poetry has a real stigma among young people (let’s pretend it’s just in young people). It’s seen as THE most boring thing on the planet, ever. (Most) parents hate it, (some) teachers don’t understand it and (all) students groan at the very word.
Why? What happened in their childhoods for them to react to poetry with demonstrable hatred? Were they abducted, held against their will and forced to try to find a rhyme for ‘orange’? Did their parents recite Coleridge to them on the naughty step? Did someone bash them in the face with the complete works of Shel Silverstein?
It’s not just the jaded older teens, either, with their affected disdain for everything. I have done a lot of work in primary and secondary schools, and it’s always the same. I hear comments like, “I thought poetry was for old people”, or “I thought it had to be about flowers and stuff, I didn’t know it could be fun.” And my favourite: “When I first heard we were doing poetry, I was gutted.”
What makes a teenager gutted at the thought of making poetry? How has the education system sucked any interest out of playing with language, telling stories and expressing yourself? They can’t all have been taught by stuffed shirts like Christopher Bantick (long story – Google him), so why do they think poetry is going to be impenetrable, irrelevant to their modern lives and just plain boring? Maybe it starts in primary school, where they’re being asked from an early age to write dinky little verses about what they like about school, with very little emphasis being put on the purpose and process of writing. I remember my experience of poetry in primary school was making up poems about cats sitting on mats, and that was it. It wasn’t about expression or creativity; it was colouring within the lines.
Maybe school kids are only being taught outdated texts with page poetry about gardens or whimsical love poems about stars. Maybe they’re not being given anything more contemporary, or urbane or direct. And maybe (almost certainly, unfortunately) they’re not being exposed to the exciting and energetic live poetry scene that’s exploding on stages all around the world, and accessible on the internet (especially YouTube).
Of course, poetry can be thrilling or moving or revelatory or cathartic, and it can be experimental or formal and so on. It’s a creativity engine. And I find, in particular, performance of the written word to be a surefire way to open teens up to the possibilities. Even just drawing the dots for them between poetry and hip-hop, which is a common touchstone, gets immediate results. Add in a bit competitive spirit, in the form of slams, and you can find reluctance and sneering turn into a queue to sign up.
I’ve seen kids, a week after they were so shy they could barely say their name in front of a classroom, beating their chest and shouting lines charged with emotion and personal insight into the ears of their amazed classmates, and all because they were introduced to a poetic form that allows them to say what’s on their mind without any rules and with complete freedom of expression. Getting teenagers to write is about listening, about getting them razzed up about something they care about. Some of the most insightful and touching poems I’ve ever heard from anyone are by young people talking about what it’s like to be a kid, their crazy experience of Facebook, cyberbullying, selfies, 12ies, parents, homework and the future. Some kids are angry, scared and unsure, some are enthusiastic, funny and experimental, and poetry is a fantastic way for them to express it all, and perhaps even refine their feelings about the world as a result. The relief I witness when they learn that it doesn’t have to rhyme and it certainly doesn’t have to be about flowers is like a fire hydrant exploding.
Holding a poetry slam is a great way to get a classroom interested in writing poetry. School kids of all ages absolutely glow afterwards and I’ve often seen new friendships, confidences and school communities formed. And – this is for the po-faced naysayers – I’ve had numerous teachers tell me that after doing slam poetry, their previously uninterested kids wanted to learn Keats, Plath and Coleridge. It’s a great way in.
So here’s my guide to getting teenagers enthused about poetry.
1. RELISH IN THE HATE! Get them to write a shit-awful poem, a real stinker, a poem so bad Celine Dion wouldn’t even use it for lyrics. Discuss what makes a bad poem: clichés, terrible metaphors, stale similes and the obligatory use of the word ‘soul’. Have them stick a ‘thou’ in there too. This is actually hilarious fun and the kids will have a ball.
2. Poetry doesn’t have to rhyme, omg.
3. Then talk about what makes a good poem. It’s surprising how much teenagers already know about this when they open up. They’ll mention elements such as details, senses, things that are unique to the writer and resonate with the reader, unique imagery and unexpected emotions. So, get them to write a good poem, referring to the list of what makes it good that they come up with. If you have time, give them a week to find a poem they like by someone else and bring it into class. Yep, show and tell (show and yell, if they’re keen).
3. Show them clips of exciting contemporary performance poets reading their work, such as Taylor Mali, Sarah Kay, Luka Lesson, Omar Musa and Andrea Gibson. YouTube is chock full of them. Let them know poetry doesn’t have to be always beautiful and affecting, it can be funny, ranty, angry, ridiculous and experimental. The American TV show Brave New Voices is a great resource, produced by HBO – a teen poetry competition jam-packed with passionate performances for inspiration.
4. Find a poem you like and read it to the class with enthusiasm and delight. Enjoy it, relish it, have fun with the way words fall into senseless bundles, rhyming delights, quivering rhythms and goosebumpingly exciting meanings. That is, show ’em how it’s done, and how much you love it.
5. Get them to perform their work. Maybe hold a slam and have them work in teams. Get them to make a film clip of each other’s work, create a buzz, invite their parents, make a big deal. It’s valuable, it’s exciting, it’s relevant, and it’s important.
Poet and spoken word star Emilie Zoey Baker is a longtime Going Down Swinging contributor and features in issues #18-#20, #22-#26, #29-#30 and #33.
Want Emilie’s help organising a slam at your school? Click here.