One of the best experiences I have had this year is teaching a poetry class. I have been an English professor for over a year now, and while I have managed to sneakĀ  poetry in to most of my classes, I have never had the opportunity to teach an entire class before.

My own experience with poetry as an undergraduate was not a very good one. I was already writing, both poetry and prose, quite seriously. I read poetry fairly often, but in a very undisciplined, anthology friendly way. So I entered the class fairly confident that an introductory course in poetry would not overwhelm. On the first day the teacher informed us that the first time she read poetry for fun was when she was assigned this course. I was shocked that she even phrased it that way, if she was already assigned the course how could it be for fun? She inadvertently reversed the unstressed and stressed syllables when explaining Iambs and Trochees. She spent two three hour classes teaching us that the Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock was not something anyone was capable of understanding. The most modern poem she taught us was the Fish by Elizabeth Bishop. The list goes on.

The school I received my undergraduate degree from is very different from the school I now teach at. The University of Toronto is a very established, extremely competitive, large institution, that generally focused on humanities. Berkley (not the one in California) where I teach now, is a small business college. Students get degrees in Criminal Justice, and Fashion Marketing. I really like teaching there in large part because of the students. In the poetry class I taught (the last day is today) I had students who read poetry for their own amusement and enjoyed writing poems. I also had students who had never really read a poem before, they were taking my class only because they needed an elective to graduate and mine happened to fit into their schedule. Both groups of students and the class as a whole has taught me many lessons.

The most important lesson was that the poets and poems you are taught about in graduate school are not the ones that impact peoples live outside of the poetry community. The first assignment I gave my students was to bring in a poem of their choice to share with the class. I got a great deal of Langston Hughes, Edgar Allen Poe, Robert Frost, and Maya Angelou. When the students gave presentation on poet’s, five people gave there presentation on Poe, four on Angelou. I am admitting now that while I read Poe as a child, the first time I heard one of Angelou’s poems it was in my class, being read by one of my students. Phenomenal Women is a poem that empowers, it doesn’t have the sophistication of line breaks that appeals so much to teachers and students, but it is raw in a way that connects with individuals. It would be mocked in many of my graduate classes, yet it has had much more impact on humanity then Jack Gilbert or John Ashberys poems.

As a graduate student in workshop you don’t often talk about the importance of the idea in a poem, but for my students, that is often the most valuable thing. I think as a writer, a reader, and a teacher, that is a lesson I will carry with me for a long time. I learned that I also value the idea, although I prefer it to be less transparent, I love and remember it best when a poet like Auden or Yeats combines great thoughts with imagery and language, to make it alive. That is the balance I am seeking more in my work now, thanks in part to my students.

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