January 7, 2016 - Michael Salinger

Poetry Prohibition

Poetry is a gateway drug.


So – Sara and I are finally home for a couple weeks – over a month straight with no travel. We’ve been overseas speaking at conferences and visiting schools and stateside we’ve been to a couple of conferences since Halloween. As much as I enjoy going places and meeting up with new and old friends – just waking up in my own bed for an extended period of time sure has its upside.

Here’s something I’ve come to realize. People (especially those in the educational world) use poetry in much the same way folks might use illegal drugs. They pretend that they don’t.

I’ve heard every excuse for shoving poetry into the shadows – It’s too hard – It’s not relevant – it’s not in the common core – it won’t sell – teachers won’t use it in the classroom. I’ve even had a past editor cluck their tongue looking dolefully at me and say, “God knows we’ve tried”, shaking their head as if speaking to a disappointing child. To which I would reply – “Well, try a little harder.”


BUT – the very same folks who swear poetry isn’t pertinent will open up a PD session with what? A poem of course! How do they teach the dreaded concept of – dum dum dum – CLOSE READING – why with a poem! I received a tweet at NCTE gushing over the fact that a presenter was wowing the attendees in a session by performing a Jane Yolen poem to music.

Got a presidential inauguration going on? – Whip out a poem – your only daughter getting married? – Whip out a poem – Uncle Spike passed away? – Whip out a poem! Poetry is out there folks – quit pretending it’s not. It’s reminiscent of prohibition – everybody acting like nobody is drinking yet those coffee cups are just short of flammable.

If poetry is so irrelevant when are people gonna stop abusing it?

Poetry is suffering from false advertising being perpetrated by those who should be its very champions. But, like a speakeasy owner, it seems they want to keep the goods under their control – deciding when, where, at what price and who may deliver it.

Student composing

Over and over again Sara and I have had rousing success using the genre in classrooms as a learning tool – when our lessons and strategies are presented they receive the highest accolades. To the naysayers I say – “You know why poetry doesn’t sell? – Because you refuse to sell it!” All these closet users of poetry have to do is recommend it.

Instead we get textbooks and lessons written by non-poets that ARE daunting or irrelevant to classroom goals. We are told poetry is a great way to express our feelings or to create cartography of our souls turning the genre into this ephemeral wisp, to immerse students in it then set them loose without teaching craft guaranteeing its literacy utility to disappear like smoke from a chimney. When in reality almost all poetry is creative non-fiction and every single reading and writing standard ever conjured to sell a pre-packaged pedagogical program can be taught through poetry.

All the policy makers, the curriculum advisers, the PD bookers, conference proposal panel reviewers have to do is recommend its use – poetry will do the rest. A little informed advocacy goes a long way – give it a chance to get its foot in the door and poetry will surprise even the most reluctant with its effectiveness. But, the will to take this little risk has to be there.

So think about it – do you use or abuse poetry?

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“Sara and Michael bring infectious energy and joy leavened with deep knowledge of best practices in literacy to their work with children and teachers.” Ellin Keene – Author of Mosaic of Thought and The Teacher You Want to Be
“Sara and Michael bring magic, and a contagious love of words to both students and teachers alike!” Georgia Heard - Author of Awakening the Heart: Exploring Poetry in Elementary and Middle School More testimonials...