“I was not excited to read this book,” says a student, holding up a copy of Morgan Parker’s There are More Beautiful Things than Beyoncé before our Introduction to Literature class starts. The poetry collection is the first book we’re tackling this semester. “But then she quoted Kendrick Lamar right off the bat, and I was like, I know this! I know what song this is from.”
My student is referring to Parker’s epigraph, a line from Lamar’s “A.D.H.D.”: “The president is black/ She black.” Already, my student has access to one of the cultural conversations that the poems exist alongside. I know this. His words play over in my head, and I think, this is why I start my poetry units with contemporary poetry.
Many of my Introduction to Literature students are nervous about poetry. It’s the kind of literature that they oftentimes see as locked behind a gate and only with the right key or code can they unlock a poem’s “secret meaning.” They view poetry as an elevated form of writing, in contrast with prose writing, which they view as “casual” (a terribly vague word that, when I press for greater specificity, usually means accessible or colloquial or language that’s familiar). While I question their use of the word casual, it highlights students’ relationship with poetry. That it’s prose’s buttoned-up, stuffy counterpart, guarding a lock box filled with the secrets
However, contemporary poetry offers students the opportunity to redefine their relationship with the form. If they can understand how their own positioning within history and a culture (a familiarity with the allusions Parker makes to Lamar’s body of work, or references to the Black Lives Matter movement) allows them to read, interpret, and understand a poem, then they might be more prepared to turn to poems from other periods. When they gain confidence reading contemporary poetry, they’re positioned to be better readers of older words. They’re less intimidated by poems from other time periods if they understand that at one point, someone was able to read that poem not because they had unlocked a secret code, but because they had the cultural context to do so.
Perhaps here is where teachers might worry that this method invites students to dismiss older works because they come from a different context. However, I get sort of excited when a student says, “I don’t get it because the poet’s references aren’t relatable to me.” These kinds of comments offer a perfect segue into a discussion about what it means to be an empathetic reader and why poetry and literature matter. I’ll ask the student (and the rest of the class): “What if I assign a poem written yesterday by a person with a completely different gender, race, socioeconomic status than you? And the experiences they relate in this poem are nothing like what you’ve ever experienced? Is it not worth reading? Or trying to understand?” The student, as well as a few others, will say: “I would try to understand.” And so I prod further: “Why would you try to understand?” At which point, they’re a little bit cornered: “Because it’s good to hear and try to understand different perspectives and experiences.” We enter a discussion about how reading poetry from other eras can help humanize experiences that are different from our own, which then will usually spiral into a wider conversation about how poetry and literature can make us better people.
By unlearning some of the expectations that they have of poetry—that it’s inaccessible, it’s too formal or lofty for non-English majors—students can gain more confidence in their ability to read poetry, which will in turn make them better and more enthusiastic readers.