By Gregory Chandler
In “Twenty Poems That Could Save America,” featured in a 2014 collection of essays under the same name, Tony Hoagland tells us that the current canon of poets is failing to accurately represent the poetry community and is helping students to reinforce the idea that poetry is confusing, outdated, and unimportant. Hoagland calls for primary and secondary school curriculums across the nation to rethink the way they teach poetry, specifically by removing inaccessible or long-dead poets like Emily Dickinson, Carl Sandburg, William Carlos Williams, and W.B. Yeats, replacing them with poets that students are more likely to understand, be interested in, and connect with. Hoagland tells us that many teachers choose the nearly inaccessible classic poets because they feel that they have the knowledge to teach their students about poetry, and want to show that knowledge off. This creates problems because it puts poetry that needs someone to explain it in the spotlight. Students begin to feel that all poetry is only accessible when someone who already understands the work is there to explain it, which is not at all true.
Hoagland, never one to point out a problem without a well-devised solution, offers twenty poems with which teachers can replace the current curriculum, and he’s created quite the diverse list. Almost all of the poets chosen on Hoagland’s list are from the Twentieth Century, the exception being Walt Whitman, with “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” and many of the poets Hoagland selected are still living and writing. On the other hand, to leave students across the country with twenty poems selected to showcase the many functions of poetry leaves much to be desired. Students on the East Coast are not going to be fully engaged by the same poems that students on the West Coast might. The same goes for students who grew up in a city like Philadelphia or Baltimore and children who grew up in rural Mississippi. Hoagland’s selected poems are certainly a good jumping point for teachers who have little experience with teaching poetry, but I think the real work is going to fall on the teachers to decipher the interests of their students and select poems that she feels are going to connect on the deepest level with those students.
I didn’t really discover poetry until my senior year of high school, when my AP English teacher spent a week going over sonnets, villanelles, and “The Red Wheelbarrow,” though I’d surrounded myself through poetic language through songwriting as early as 6th grade. Even then, I loved the power that words could have on my emotions, whether it be in a song, a particularly strong piece of prose, or, on rare occasions, a good poem. I spent my middle and high school years using my growing knowledge of literary devices to bolster my songwriting techniques, progressing from writing shitty ripoffs of shallow rock hits from the seventies and eighties to writing well-crafted ripoffs of shallow rock hits from the seventies and eighties (and nineties). I started college majoring in theater at Temple University in Philadelphia with a goal to become a playwright, having never really immersed myself in poetry. That spring I changed my major to English with the intention of teaching high school, and in my literary theories class we read “The Wasteland,” and I totally didn’t get it.
When I transferred to the University of Mary Washington my sophomore year, I took another literary theories course, where the professor began every class with a reading and discussion from two short American poetry anthologies. It was in that class I fell in love with language again, but, just like Hoagland warned, we primarily read poems from the traditional canon, which held little meaning to most of the students in our class. Even so, I decided to change my focus, again, to creative writing, primarily to bolster my songwriting skills even further. It was another three semesters before I finally fell in love with poetry for poetry’s sake.
Spring semester my senior year of undergraduate, I took a course on contemporary American poetry, as well as the capstone poetry workshop. Finally, in the contemporary poetry class, I found poets that I could relate to on a personal level, who I felt shared some experiences and worldviews with me, rather than general feelings. Poets like A. Van Jordan and Dan Beachy-Quick captured my attention in ways that Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg had failed to do at that point (though I’ve since come around to their works). We were assigned Best American Poetry 2013, which hadn’t even come out when textbooks were announced. Nearly every poem in that collection felt more intimate to me than years of Emily Dickinson’s writing (though I also adore her work). The range of topics, of forms, of poets in that collection made sure that there was something in the collection for every student in the class.
That’s the kind of excitement I think a broader range of contemporary poetry selections could bring to high school, and even middle school, classrooms. There are poems that students from all backgrounds can draw connections to, and it’s up to individual teachers in each classroom across America to be able to find those poems for each individual student in their classes. Hoagland’s “Twenty Poems That Could Save America” is a fantastic jumping point and a great way for teachers to open the dialogue of poetry to their students. But it’s just a starting point, and Hoagland knows that teachers are still going to have to do the bulk of the work if they want to bring poetry back to the American public. It’s too late to start teaching accessible poetry in upper-level undergraduate English courses. The process needs to be done as early as elementary school if we want it to have any sticking power. So let’s all take our favorite contemporary poems and share them with a child we care about, whether it’s a sibling, cousin, family friend, or a student you tutor. Make sure they know that poetry is out there, and it’s for them.