On Being a Teacher of Poetry in the Face of a Pandemic
An answer to the question, “Why do we still study poetry?”
Well, William Shakespeare embarked on writing his sequence of 154 sonnets during an outbreak of plague. If that’s not inspiring during this time, I honestly don’t know what is.
It is so peculiar. I hadn’t expected the weather to be so beautiful during a pandemic. Then again, I do not think I (nor anyone else for that matter) truly knew what to expect. Perhaps, I believed that in some kind of ecological metaphor in the vein of King Lear, the skies above would split apart as if to represent and reflect the turmoil stirring up from within the hearts of us characters on the world’s stage below. After all, “As above, so below” and “As within, so without,” as the adage goes.
But, as I look up and out on the world from beside my window, it is the contrast of the sun shining down on such a day that resonates with me most powerfully. “What does all of this mean?” I wonder, reaching for the familiar comfort of a cup of tea and recalling the timbre in the voice of the poet Sarah Kay who once said, “Life is the poem. I am simply the poet.”
Right before the pandemic closed the doors to our schools I had just begun teaching a unit on poetry to my classes of college students, many of whom had inevitably asked me, “What’s the point of this?” or “Why do we still study poetry?”
I paused, considering their questions thoughtfully.
As a writer, teacher, and adjunct professor of English, I have always loved and had an affinity for words: the sentences we speak, the stories we tell, and the shape that our phrases and narratives take on when conveyed in poems, essays, drama, songs, or fiction. However, when asked, “What’s the point of this?” or “Why do we still study poetry?” even I had a difficult time conjuring the right words to express the full scope or larger purpose and meaning of something I hold so dear.
When discussing this matter with my colleagues, some said that the study of poetry augments students’ analytical abilities which can be transferred and applied to a variety of uses in many different contexts and fields. When turning these questions back over to my students, several suggested that reading poetry could cultivate one’s sense of empathy or encourage people to appreciate our freedom of expression and speech.
As my classes began to analyze poems about the innermost questions of people, alive and dead, regarding their thoughts on topics like their relationship to nature or the divine, the hearth and home, family life, social justice, or death alongside a series of Comparing, Contrasting, Sensory, and Repeating poetic devices, I taught my students the S.E.A method; an acronym I came up with to help them individually State, Explain with Evidence/Examples, and Analyze a piece of abstract art or literature. The acronym is actually quite fitting as I happen to teach at a school in Ocean County, New Jersey, and as such many of my students feel especially connected to our ocean and sea. The ocean happens to figure quite heavily as an ongoing motif in my own life. My favorite piece of music has always been “Caribbean Blue” by Enya, my favorite spoken word poem that I have written and performed is entitled “Oceania,” and I currently work in Ocean County. The S.E.A method also happens to be the punniest way I could think of to teach my students how to express what they were uniquely “seeing” or “S.E.A-ing” in a poem.
Now, after years of teaching my students how to use and employ this method to break down the analysis of things that could be seen as abstract or otherwise difficult to understand, I cannot help but apply this method of analysis to my own observations when I look outside my window at the sun on this otherwise dismal day.
In trying to State, Explain with Evidence/Examples, and Analyze my own observations, and calm myself down, this is what I have found:
State: What strikes me most is the stark contrast between the feeling of panic and dread that has permeated our collective consciousness as this pandemic continues to spread versus the beauty of the weather on what could otherwise be considered an uncharacteristically sunny day.
Explain with Evidence/Examples: I observe the sun shining so fiercely and brightly today; the way the light filters in through my window and hits a crystal suspended from the chain on my light fixture and casts rainbows across the walls of my room. If I remain focused on the sun, its light pierces through the clamor of the media and the tolling of our devices. I could feel the warmth of the sun on my skin should I choose to step outside.
Analyze: I do not claim to truly know or understand the meaning of this. Akin to art, everyone will make of this what they will and find their own personal meaning in this series of events. Personally, as I look at the sun on this day, I am reminded of the good that still exists in this world as I continue to sip my tea. I think of the purpose of the artistic and literary device contrast. How it is used to highlight the opposing elements of entities, and the way that we could never truly understand light without darkness, appreciate pleasure without pain, or fully realize the ephemeral nature of life without its opposing counterpart. I think of how many sunny days I have personally failed to truly appreciate or have largely ignored altogether due to the perceived need to keep up with the busy nature or fast pace of life that has seemingly and suddenly come to a halt. Yet, now, removed and secluded from mainstream society in the form of self isolating due to a virus that consists of the prefix “corona” that for me used to simply mean “the outermost region of the sun’s atmosphere” (Encyclopedia Britannica), the beauty of the sunshine on this day is all that I can find myself focused and fixated on as I recall a line from a Sarah Kay poem I had been going over with my students just a few days ago that went, “. . . no matter how many land mines erupt in a minute, be sure your mind lands on the beauty of this funny place called life . . . [because] this world is made out of sugar. It can crumble so easily” (Kay 7).
So, why do we study poetry? What is the purpose? What is the point? Perhaps, it is the attainment of meaning in these funny-sounding, figurative, at times seemingly senseless words that helps us make some sort of sense --or find some sort of meaning--in this funny-sounding, figurative, at times seemingly senseless world.
Or, perhaps because one day this pandemic and its effect on our way of life will be recorded in our history books, and future students will read about what happened, look at the accompanying charts and graphs, and see the numbers, but it will be our poems, diary entries, memoirs, essays, or pieces of realistic fiction that will add a human touch to our facts and figures to give people insight on what it actually felt like to live during such uncertain times.
Through these works, future generations will see the irony of a world that for thousands of years survived on the basis of people huddling together for warmth in the cold or coming together for large gatherings and demonstrations to enforce social justice or enact change, now needing to adopt the practice of social distancing in an act of solidarity to keep as many people as possible safe.
They will see our need to stay at least 6 feet away from everyone at all times, including our closest family members and friends; our avoidance of festive gatherings or inability to visit our immunocompromised friends or elderly grandparents for fear of spreading the disease and accidentally destroying the life of a person we love; our teachers scrambling to move classrooms online to deliver the highest quality of instruction from a distance; our grocery store workers doing their best to keep the shelves stocked and deliver essential items to our families; the reverence we have for our doctors, nurses, and hospital staff for fighting on the front lines of this pandemic as our scientists race to formulate a vaccine that could potentially save the lives of millions.
Writing will be our shout into the chasms of history, the echoes of which will hopefully resonate emotionally with our future.
The first set of poems my students had been assigned to read and analyze upon the start of virtual instruction had been Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “Sympathy” followed by Maya Angelou’s “Caged Bird” and “Still I Rise.” After reading and analyzing these poems together given the current state of events, my students could now understand and truly empathize with the birds who longed for the freedom of the world beyond their cages in the first two poems, and felt reassured by the tone and strength of Maya Angelou’s voice when she repeated the phrase “I rise” throughout her recitation of the last poem and the powerful notion that they too will rise “Just like moons and like suns,/With the certainty of tides” (Angelou 9-10) after all this is said and done.
For now, I just want to hold onto the sunshine of this day and the reassurance of knowing that no matter what happens, whether I am here or not tomorrow, the sun will continue to rise again and shed its light on humanity.