This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.
Poet and critic Charles Bernstein points out that contemporary poetry - despite some of its postmodern conceits - is not actually more difficult to teach than traditional poetry. In fact, I find my students to be much more receptive to contemporary poetry because it is, well, contemporary. Being that it is National Poetry Month, then, I thought I’d recommend a book series that is extremely useful for teaching contemporary poetry: The Best American Poetry.
Contemporary poetry - as I’ve noted before - is not something most people feel comfortable with. For better or for worse, it has gone the way of contemporary sculpture or dance: it can tend to confuse “common sense” sensibilities. Take Aram Saroyan’s famous one-word poem “lighght” for example, which sparked decades of controversy over federal funding for the arts. However, while it aggressively challenges traditional poetics, it isn’t technically difficult for a student reader. We might even imagine an elementary school classroom learning about it—they certainly don’t have the presumptions that many of our students have learned to harbor.
For the past few years I’ve been using The Best American Poetry series as a way to find current poetry outside of my own natural reading interests. The series provides a variety of approaches to poetry, many of which are written in the sorts of forms the students will see on the exams. Likewise, many of these poems deal with subject matter students can relate to. The 2010 anthology included an adaptation of Steve Campbell Sutherland’s “SATs,” a poem of SAT-type questions in verse that my students loved.
This past year’s edition - edited by Kevin Young - has a series of engaging and accessible poems that lend themselves to the kind of close reading required for the AP® English Literature exam. Mary Ruefle’s “Provenance” recalls fifth grade arts activities - surely something our students can relate to - and leads her to this unpunctuated and paradoxical last stanza: “I hated childhood/ I hate adulthood/ I love being alive.” Charles Simic’s “Nineteen Thirty-Eight” also deals with childhood memories, but juxtaposes contemporary events—the blitzkrieg; Superman’s comics debut—against the quiet happenings of his own first year of life. Finally, Mary Jo Thompson offers us a wonderful free verse sonnet sequence titled “Thirteen Months” which, aside from being inviting without being simple is an example of how poetry can - when it wishes - move us. That, I believe, is a lesson always worth teaching.
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