Seven Sacred Promises of Poetry

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Before we read a single line of poetry, I make a vow to my students. Each of these promises comes out of years of battling bad attitudes toward poetry. It comes out of my own struggle with finding my place in this mysterious genre. And it’s always followed by a sigh of relief and mutual respect. 

1. I’ll never ask you what a poem means and expect a right answer. Because there is no right answer. There’s nothing more daunting than being asked to interpret what a person you’ve never met meant about words you just read. Yes, we’ll discuss the symbols and metaphors. We’ll look at the historical context of the poet. We’ll speculate on the message and purpose. But I’ll never ask you after just one reading of a poem, “What does this mean?” 

2. Song lyrics are poetry.  Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. But song lyrics are just one tiny piece of all the poetry that exists in the history of the world.  

3. I’ll never ask you to just underline the similes and circle the alliteration. Identifying figurative language in a poem is useless without analyzing why it’s there. We do both. 

4. If you hate poetry now, you might still hate it at the end of the year. But at least you’ll have an educated opinion. “I don’t enjoy poetry because…” is an acceptable statement in this classroom. “I hate poetry. Period.” will be met with hostility. If you’re not having fun at some point, I’ll ask you to leave. Poetry is the art of word play. In general, it has no rules. It’s the most freeing writing you’ll do here. Don’t be a party pooper.

5. Poetry is not a unit; it’s everywhere all the time.  We do not experience poetry in isolation; therefore, it will not be condensed into a few weeks in the spring. It will be all year in all its forms.  It is not a side dish or a dessert to the main course. Poetry is a main course in and of itself. 

6. Emotions are required. You don’t have to write about your secret crush or your deceased guinea pig. You do have to write poetry. That poetry has to come from somewhere inside you where there is a shred of caring about something.

7. You will find your soulmate poet or poem. You will fall head over heels for a poet or poem that totally rocks your world.  When your mind is completely blown, your heart turned to liquid mush, your eyes wide open, your jaw on the floor, then you’ll know you’ve found your one. My job is to expose you to the vast universe of verse, saturate you in so many different kinds of poetry, that you’ll find that perfect poem or poet who rings your bell. And then you can die happy.

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2 thoughts on “Seven Sacred Promises of Poetry

  1. inthemiddle Reply

    Love it, but with our state test, they have to interpret poetry and identify examples of figurative language, so I am stuck. Sigh. 7th graders are so literal they need the concrete sensation of circling, underlining, etc. to really nail the concept.

    • Amber McMath Post authorReply

      I definitely understand this dilemma. I updated the post with the word “just” on #3. One downside of some poetry lesson is it’s all about identifying figurative language without questioning why the poet put it there. Then in students’ minds, poetry is reduced to a seek and find worksheet of examples. I try to really push the WHY of figurative language. It helps make it more meaningful when they go to write their own poetry too.

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