“Live Like a Poet:” Celebrating National Poetry Month
"I consider myself a poet first and a musician second. I live like a poet and I'll die like a poet." - Bob Dylan
You might be wondering, why do we need a National Poetry Month? Perhaps it’s because most people leave high school hating poetry, having experienced it through English classes and textbooks as a set of riddles to be solved, often with hidden, seemingly inaccessible meanings. Jackie has done research with teachers who struggle with poetry themselves, and Sue has long worked with students and communities in which some are alienated from poetry while others are deeply engaged with the genre. We both believe that engaging with poetry in ways other than just searching for a hidden meaning brings about a life-long love with poetry.
We are officially in the midst of a poetry boom, with the National Endowment for the Arts reporting last June that the US hit a 15-year high for poetry readership. Poetry publishing and performance proliferate. Many young poets are publishing to critical acclaim and popular recognition, some of them having drawn on early experiences within youth spoken word poetry, social media savvy, a gift for performance, and talent in many cases nurtured through MFA programs, community workshops, and professional networks.
We are officially in the midst of a poetry boom...
Not everyone is happy about the current popularity of poetry. Some view it as both a cause and an effect of disastrously bad poetry going viral (British bestseller Rupi Kaur has been a special target, someone Baby Boomers might think of as this era's Rod McKuen). Others point to shifting race/sex/gender dynamics within the poetry industry that are foregrounding new, young poets because of their identities.
For us, MORE POETRY = BETTER. The current popularity of the genre means this is an exciting time for English Language Arts educators, who have never had so many ways to access poetry and make it accessible for their students. That we feel the need to make poetry accessible to young people is telling, of course, given that they tend to have an innate openness to poetry's rhythms, rhymes, and wordplay. Poetry's problem is that it got put on a pedestal and made mysterious and mystifying, and that is how it has mostly been taught in our schools.
Making poetry accessible, then, means claiming poetry as everyone's human birthright. We - ourselves and our students - get to experience it through all of our senses, to muck about in it, question it, challenge it, create it, and make it live in whatever ways we choose. We get to set aside questions of "but what does the poem MEAN???" to talk about sound, feeling, images, pacing, purpose, passion - things that make a poem a poem, which meaning never did.
Making poetry accessible, then, means claiming poetry as everyone's human birthright. We - ourselves and our students - get to experience it through all of our senses, to muck about in it, question it, challenge it, create it, and make it live in whatever ways we choose.
Ways to Celebrate National Poetry Month
Poetry shouldn’t just be reserved for the classroom. Started in 1996, National Poetry Month is a way to celebrate to emotional response a good poem can bring. At poets.org, you can find a number of ways to celebrate the month including a list of 30 Ways to Celebrate National Poetry Month. Some of our favorites are to recreate a poet’s favorite food or drink recipe and chalk a poem on the sidewalk.
In this spirit, we offer suggestions and resources below to help students, teachers, and the public celebrate National Poetry Month and keep digging into poetry well past April. The approaches below work whether you're a teacher, parent, student, or just someone who wants to get more comfortable with poetry:
If you haven’t already, consider reading a verse novel. Written entirely in a series of poems, these books present stories in captivating ways and will attract even the poetry haters among us. Book Riot has a great list of young adult novels written entirely in verse. We like The Crossover by Kwame Alexander, Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds, and The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo.
Remember the simple joy of making an acrostic poem as a kid or name poems? Try some fun sites like this poetry machine or an app such as Poetry Creator.
Make the writing and performance of poetry a familiar part of your class, so students are encountering poems as people who also write poems; we read differently when we read as writers.
Use visual and audio texts of poems; make the performance of poems part of what we discuss in our encounters with poetry.
Incorporate a range of poetries, from the popular to the esoteric.
Access local artists to make the idea of living poetry real to students, and to motivate them through interaction with practicing artists.
Use poems to engage themes and subject matter throughout the curriculum - poetry isn't just for English Language Arts!
Finally, consider taking some time to (re)discover a poem you loved once as a child—or maybe share a few lines of a poem you were forced to memorize by a well-meaning English teacher. In this way, maybe you can experience what it means to live like a poet.
Forward Arts All City Finals
The Freshhhh Heat Teen Open Mic & Poetry Slam in Baton Rouge, LA
Sue Weinstein, PhD and Jackie Bach, PhD
with Anita Dubroc and Joshua Bourgeois
Sue Weinstein is MacCurdy Distinguished Associate Professor of English at LSU. She currently serves as Board president for Humanities Amped, a critical literacies program partnered with the East Baton Rouge Parish School District. In the past, she worked closely with the community organizations Forward Arts and WordPlay Teen Writing Project. Dr. Weinstein was awarded LSU's prestigious Mid-Career Rainmaker Award in 2019 and received LSU’s Brij Mohan Distinguished Faculty Award for work related to social justice in 2009. Her publications include 2 books from State University of New York Press: The Room Is on Fire: The History, Pedagogy, and Practice of Youth Spoken Word Poetry (2018) and Feel These Words: Writing in the Lives of Urban Youth (2009). Prior to the PhD, Professor Weinstein taught high school English in Chicago, IL and Cochabamba, Bolivia.
Jacqueline Bach is the Elena and Albert LeBlanc Professor of English Education and Curriculum Theory at Louisiana State University. Her scholarship examines how young adult literature engages teachers and students in conversations about social issues, the ways in which popular culture informs (and might improve) pedagogy, and the preparation of secondary English/ Language Arts teachers. In the past, she has co-edited The ALAN Review and special issues of Theory into Practice and the English Journal. She is a former high school English teacher and the author of Reel Education: Documentaries, Biopics, and Reality Television.
Anita Dubroc is a current English Education doctoral student at LSU and a former high school English teacher.
Joshua Bourgeois is a current MEd student in English Education at LSU and is a certified middle and high school teacher.