Last year, I began asking several people -- students, friends, and colleagues -- what they viewed as a single major barrier preventing more people from reading and engaging poetry. I was especially intrigued by a response from my former college professor, Jerry W. Ward, Jr., who offered the following reply in an email message to me:
The main barrier is fear of language, or, perhaps to be precise, fear of language that one does not participate in creating. If students do not fear the norms and rules of text-messaging, they ought not fear the violation of norms and rules ---grammatical, syntactical, spatial ---which signals that the playing space is marked off for poetry rather than ordinary communication.In the many....many....writings and conversations that I have followed over the years regarding "why people don't read poetry," I somehow never came across an observation like Ward's. Yet, the idea of "fear" is fitting for what large numbers of my own students have struggled with concerning poetry.
The words, in and of themselves, are less of an obstacle than the ways different terms and phrasings are arranged on the page to comprise poems. Those arrangements, that language does constitute a major barrier for large numbers of the young people and even nontraditional students in my classes.
Presenting the students in two of my literature courses this semester with Ward's comments has been liberating for some of them. They have used his remarks as a jumping off point for identifying and talking through hesitations and insecurities to engage poetry.
The word "fear" has emerged in conversations and writing assignments during the course of the last couple of months more than any other semester since I've been a teacher. In separate exchanges, several students have mentioned "a fear of being wrong" as the reason why they have difficulty speaking up in class about poetry; others mentioned "a fear of seeming dumb" if they admitted what they did not understand about pieces. A few have mentioned "a fear of being embarrassed" about misunderstanding what poets were up to, and a couple of others mentioned "a fear of sounding racist" if they said the wrong thing. [By and large, black students are the ones who express the "fear of seeming dumb;" while white students are the ones who express the "fear of sounding racist." Go figure.]
Narrative poems, that is, poems that tell stories evoke less fear among my students. Not surprisingly, Langston Hughes is a beloved figure; Gwendolyn Brooks's and Margaret Walker's more well-known poems are highly valued; and although Ishmael Reed's poem "Flight to Canada" is about the tough subject of slavery, the letter format of that piece assists in making it easily the most popular poem every year in my classes.
Given the kinds of poems that we are most comfortable with, maybe non-narrative poems, unfamiliar terminology, seemingly odd phrasings, and writers who experiment with the "playing space" of the page contribute to making us nervous and a little afraid. For now, I'm still thinking through possibilities on how we might show more bravery in the face of scary language. I'm thankful for Professor Ward for inserting this important subject into our conversations, and I appreciate that some of my students have had the courage to elaborate on their fears.
• Colson Whitehead's other scary novel
• 25 Poems later, who are my students now?