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Teach This Poem seeks to make poetry accessible to students

Ramon Hernandez writes in his journal at Gratts Elementary School in Los Angeles.

Ramon Hernandez writes in his journal at Gratts Elementary School in Los Angeles.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times Book Critic

One of my favorite digital features is the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day, in which a new poem is delivered, daily, via Web or email. I don’t look at it all the time, but fairly often, and I am glad to know it’s there.

Here’s a taste of today’s selection, “Forecast” by Camille Rankine:

An hour

glistens in its glass case, turns

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rancid in my memory.

Another day, another

dress the day lays out

before me. I grow older

if I’m lucky.

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And I’m lucky.

The perfect sentiment, I’d suggest, for Sept. 1, a day that is (for me, anyway) all about transition, the inevitable slide from summer into fall.

Apropos of this seasonal turning, the Academy will launch a new feature Wednesday, inspired by Poem-a-Day. Called Teach This Poem, it will present a weekly poem, “accompanied by interdisciplinary resources and activities designed to help teachers quickly and easily bring poetry into the classroom.”

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What these resources are, exactly, remain to be seen, but the Academy’s educational materials offer some clues. Its website already hosts a variety of lesson plans and essays, from poets such as Ron Silliman and Kenneth Koch, that seem to make poetry more accessible.

Among my favorites is the middle school lesson plan Letters to Poets, in which students are asked to read a series of poems by, among others, Walt Whitman, Gwendolyn Brooks and Emily Dickinson, and then to explore, through a series of exercises, the issue of voice. Eventually, each student selects a poem that speaks to him or her, and writes to the poet explaining why.

One of the great things about this lesson is that it is adaptable; a teacher can bring in his or her own poets, living or dead, to open up the conversation in a variety of ways. This, it goes without saying, is what poetry offers: that direct connection, one voice to another, meaning as a function of language, of music, of inference and sound.

As to why this is important, just think back to your middle and high school days. Poetry is, too often, taught poorly, or at least it was to me — as a kind of literary medicine, elusive, difficult, albeit somehow good for you.

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The point here, then, is to open up the conversation, to make poetry accessible — and not only that, but also living, the expression of experience that in its ineluctable humanity is fundamentally like our own.

In that sense, Teach This Poem follows on the trail of a few related recent projects, among them McSweeney’s “Open the Door: How to Excite Young People About Poetry” and “The Strangest of Theatres: Poets Writing Across Borders” — published in 2013 in conjunction with the Poetry Foundation — and Brett Fletcher Lauer and Lynn Melnick’s magnificent “Please Excuse This Poem: 100 New Poets for the Next Generation,” which came out earlier this year and gathers contemporary poetry directed at a student readership.

What all of these efforts have in common is a faith, an assurance, that poetry matters, that it enlarges us the most, perhaps, when it speaks to us directly, when it puts us in touch with the emotions we share.

Twitter: @davidulin

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