Let’s just admit it: not everyone thinks poetry is as great as we do.
Is poetry in danger of dying out? Not a chance. Poetry has stood the test of time, and remains one of the most powerful, evocative forms of communication. Poetry challenges the social norm, and helps people feel like they’re part of something bigger. Poetry is the punk, badass older sister of prose. But take one look at the grade 10 English class starting their poetry unit…and you might have doubts of your own.
How can we get teens excited about poems? You just have to show them the right ones. Henceforth, my mini anthology: Poetry That Teenagers Might Actually Love (or Poetry That Teens Might Not Hate). These could be used in the classroom for analysis, in teen creative writing programs at libraries, or just as a jumping off point for readers who have yet to discover the joy of poetry.
Before selecting the poems, I asked myself: What makes a poem a good poem for teens? Although the notion of a “good poem” is a difficult one, I settled on two main requirements to maintain teen interest in poetry: 1. Vibrant imagery and 2. Relevant subject matter. Prepare yourselves.
1. “Introduction to Poetry” by Billy Collins
This was the obvious first choice for me. Not only is it a short poem filled with lively imagery (“I want them to waterski / across the surface of the poem”) but the subject matter is brilliant. Billy Collins argues in favour of the intricate experience of reading a poem while also proving its joy. Billy Collins is a great choice for teens; his writing is easy to wrap your mind around, yet it is so often chock full of wisdom and wit. Other great Billy Collins poems include “No Time” and “Aimless Love” (one of my all time favourites).
2. “Poem About Your Laugh” by Susan Glickman
This Canadian poem is one that I originally read as a teen, and have read many times since. Its imagery is radically clear and unexpected. Plus it’s such a unique approach to a love poem – if you even interpret it as such. This medium length poem is full of imagery depicting the subject’s laugh: “When you laugh it is all the unsynchronized clocks / in the watchmaker’s shop.” New readers of poetry will enjoy the satisfying challenge of interpreting the figurative language, and all readers will find themselves delighted by Glickman’s creative description.
3. “Friendly Advice to A Lot of Young Men” by Chuck Bukowski
Bukowski may be known for his edgy irreverence, however this carpe diem themed poem might reveal a softer side. While maintaining a slightly cynical tone that will entertain young readers (and shatter some outdated perceptions of poetry), the narrator lists of several outrageous pieces of life advice, creating a sort of “to do list” for his readers. “Go to Tibet / Ride a camel / Read the Bible / Dye your shoes blue / Grow a beard” etc. At the end he states “But don’t write poetry.” The common interpretation is: go out and live a life worth writing about before you try to write about it. Personally, I have a complicated relationship with this poem, and have created many parodies of it – which is exactly why I chose it. The format of this poem makes it perfect for an imitation exercise in any teen creative writing program: a narrative list of things-to-do followed by one jarring statement of what not to do. Teens will love exploring this unique poem, and trying their hand at a flexible and rewarding format. One note is that the 13th line mentions “buckshot and beer,” so teachers might want to use their discretion here. Librarians, on the other hand, might have a bit more freedom.
4. “A Boat” by Richard Brautigan
This poem is likely to shatter expectations, and inspire a very interesting conversation about subjectivity. A group interpretation of this poem could be a great way to demonstrate a) figurative language and b) how a poem can be a riddle with many answers. Personally I would love to hear a classroom full of people (of any age!) try to draw a connection between a werewolf and a boat. This poem will not overwhelm new readers of poetry, as they will be able to focus on the one driving force of the poem – a curious comparison of a werewolf to a boat.
5. “A Martian Sends a Postcard Home” by Craig Raine
This poem might be something to work towards in the classroom, as it requires several readings (and perhaps a couple definitions) to fully understand. However it is such a wonderful example of “defamiliarization,” the technique of making known objects unknown in order to present their essence, that I had to include it. As the title suggests, the narrator of the poem is a Martian describing planet Earth after experiencing it for the first time. Since he doesn’t have the proper terminology, he must use round-about language to describe our world, and makes several wise observations: “But time is tied to the wrist / or kept in a box, ticking with impatience. ” It takes a bit of unpacking, but it’s a deep, fun poem with much to be discovered.
6. “Trees” by Mark Haddon
Many young people will recognize Mark Haddon as the author of the popular novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which is part of the reason why I chose him. “Trees” is a poem that deals with issues of self-identity – what makes a person a person, and how does a person fit into the world. Its conversational tone will engage new readers of poetry, but readers who are willing to give it their full attention will extract a lot of meaning from its 17 lines.
7. “o by the by” by e.e. cummings
There was no chance that I’d get through a list of recommended poems without mentioning e.e. cummings. Although several of his poems contain highly graphic sexual content, and may not be appropriate for a classroom, many are about life, death, kindness, humanity, and the essence of beauty. E.e. cummings is the ultimate example of an experimental poet who breaks rules to make a point. I chose “o by the by” because it exemplifies cummings’ unique style and deals with themes relevant to teens: the future, hope, and fear. Other great choices, featuring even more vivid imagery, are “Suppose Life is an old man,” “Spring is like a perhaps hand,” “if i,” and “may my heart always be open.”
On that note, if you want/need to go the Classic route, many of the modern realist poets may be good, concrete choices for teens. Try 8. Ezra Pound, 9. Frank O’Hara, and 10. W.H. Auden. Just keep your eye out for mature content if that’s something you need to do.
Feel encouraged to leave comments with further suggestions. If you read this post because you’re new to poetry, I hope you found what you’re looking for. And if you read this post because you are about to teach poetry to teenagers: have fun. And good luck.