Teaching Poetry

There is a big English assignment due tomorrow for Seniors at Eufaula High. This means that I spent my night explaining poetry to several different seniors. I wish the school would just give me a copy of all of their English books so that I can be up on what they are reading. The assignment is on two rather difficult Anglo-Saxon poems “The Seafarer” and “The Wanderer.” Both poems are good and depending on the translation quite pretty. Once I figure out what was going on I enjoyed them both.

So here is my complaint. None of the students that I was working with enjoyed the poems. They couldn’t enjoy them, because their assignment wasn’t to read the poem as art, but to dissect the poem and figure out what it means. Their assignment was to pull out the symbolism and come up with their idea of what the author meant. All of that is well and good, and students should learn to read poems and figure out what is going on on their own, but that shouldn’t be the only reason for reading poetry.

It seems to me that most schools teach poetry not as something that should speak to your soul, but as something that should be dissected like a science experiment. It fascinates me that a whole generation of people who can’t go anywhere without music and who love rap hate poetry. The main reason they hate poetry is because they are often told to beat the meaning out of a poem not really feel what the author is trying to say.

I think the two poems that we worked on tonight were good and they had good ideas, but none of the students could see those ideas so they were just looking at a jumble of words. On top of that their assignment had nothing to do with how the poem touched their heart it was all about how the poem touched their minds. That is good and all, but that isn’t poetry.

I bring all of this up because I think it has a parallel to the way we do church. We spend more time trying to figure out what a passage of scripture “means” than we do trying to let the love letter of God (what we call the Bible) speak to our souls. We as teachers try to wring every kernel of fact from the text and from the gospel for that matter and don’t really deal with how the gospel should speak to our hearts.

In our defense teaching for the mind is much easier than teaching for the heart. It is very quantitative and if someone can regurgitate the information then we have done our jobs. But our job isn’t to help people to find more information it is to help people engage with that information in such a way that they find the God behind the truths and they find a real living and breathing relationship not simply a long string of facts.

We are robbing the gospel of its life and heart just like poetry teachers rob poems of their spirit.

We have Sunday school teachers at our church who are always talking about how the material doesn’t go deep enough and I am baffled at what they are meaning. It is the Bible how much deeper can it get. But I think they are meaning that it doesn’t tell enough of the facts. Now I think facts are great. I love to know new things. My family even calls me “fact boy” for the amount of useless knowledge I have. But all of the facts in the world isn’t going to make a Bible study worth an hour of my time or your time. It isn’t about learning new facts, but experiencing truth and letting that truth speak to the deep dark places of our hearts. It isn’t about learning new stuff it is about diving into the truth that we know and swimming around for a while.

That is what we should be teaching in school, to love words and art and poetry, and that is what we should be teaching in our churches, not just the facts, but how to dance with the truth and let it fill you soul.

One thought on “Teaching Poetry

  • December 18, 2007 at 4:05 AM

    I love the way you think! I’ve been on a journey since August – and I began by trying to find the who, what, where, when and why from everything I read. Now I relax and enjoy the mystery – I let it speak to my heart without having to understand everything with my mind. My heart understands.


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