Making poetry accessible


Why do school kids shy away from poetry? The answer, suggests “Open the Door: How to Excite Young People About Poetry” — a new book from McSweeney’s, in conjunction with the Poetry Foundation — is that it’s not taught very well.

“I’ve thought about that and sort of reversed it,” William Stafford says here in response to an interviewer’s question about when he decided to be a poet. “My question is: ‘When did other people give up the idea of being a poet?’ You know when we are kids we make up things, we write, and for me the puzzle is not that some people are still writing; the real question is why did the other people stop?”

Hear, hear. Poetry may, as Jim Trelease observes, “die for most people on graduation day,” but it can be “revealing in its smallness — like one of those see-through Easter eggs.”


Trelease is one of several poets to contribute essays to “Open the Door,” which is more a book for teachers than for students, full of talking points, discussion, lesson plans. The idea is to draw poets into a pedagogical conversation, through which to examine how to bring poetry to life.

Edited by Dorothea Lasky, Dominic Luxford and Jesse Nathan — poets all — and featuring Phillip Lopate, Eileen Myles, Jimmy Santiago Baca and Theodore Roethke, it’s a brilliant colloquy, offering a series of engaged commentaries, informed by real, hard-earned experience teaching poetry to kids.

Here’s Stephen Burt, on teaching what you like and liking what you teach: “If you want to get your students to read poetry, and to enjoy reading poetry, and to write intelligibly about poetry, you must read it, and enjoy reading it, yourself.”

An obvious point, perhaps, but just think back to how many English teachers you had who seemed to have little use for verse.

Or the brilliant Matthew Zapruder, on asking students to come up with a list of bad titles as a way of subverting their resistance: “Poetry is best when writers are breaking rules, and this exercise is designed to encourage that sort of behavior.”

Yes, yes, I find myself thinking: It is this sense of coloring outside the lines, as it were, that first drew me to reading and writing poems.


“Open the Door” is being published with a companion volume, “The Strangest of Theatres: Poets Writing Across Borders,” edited by Jared Hawkley, Susan Rich and Brian Turner. Here, too, we find essays, reflections and conversations, although the focus is less on how poetry functions in the classroom than how it flourishes in the world.

“The Strangest of Theatres” puts the lie to the image of the isolated poet, alone in a room like Emily Dickinson, giving us instead Elizabeth Bishop, Yusef Komunyakaa, Naomi Shihad Nye — poets whose work spans different cultures and atmospheres. It closes with a list of resources: for fellowships, grants and international opportunities, a clear expression of poetry as an active force.


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A busload of poets: Michael Zapruder’s ‘Pink Thunder’

‘The Best of the Best American Poetry’: An embarrassment of riches