Why Teach Poetry in College Composition?

by Ruminate Magazine May 14, 2015

By Jae Newman

Recently I listened to a Krista Tippet interview of Father Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest who has worked to develop and foster community for youth who find themselves growing up in gang cultures in Los Angeles. In the interview, Boyle recounts his experiences of teaching many young men to see themselves anew and how their relationships often spark, in him, a feeling of gratitude towards what these young men teach him.

Does this resonate for you? Many of my greatest and most profound teachers are people who never knew they were teaching anyone. Sometimes when I tell people what I do for a living—that I teach college composition—I often get empathetic expressions and worried looks. “Oh, I’m sorry,” is a common reaction.

And at least once a semester, I’d like to take those folks up on their sympathies for the plight of the adjunct composition instructor. To be sure, teaching college composition is a contact sport and if you doubt yourself for a minute, introduce any blood into the water, then you will stand there for the next forty minutes or fourteen weeks wondering if you are in the wrong profession. Quite often you might have a midterm meltdown. (Abandon ship. The whole operation is going down!)

Can I tell you how many essays I have read on abortion and the legalization of medical marijuana in eight years of teaching? No, I cannot. But every once in a while I, the teacher, am sent back by the power of experience and sheer force of language begging to be released by raw poets learning to harness their thoughts into written expression.

For some students, you simply assign the essay and tap on an open-ended topic to discover a well-spring of their potential. I often start my sections of composition looking at a poem by Martin Espada titled, “Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper.” It’s a poem about appreciating the work involved in an education; the speaker recounts a narrative of working long hours in a factory producing yellow legal papers with countless paper cuts.

Two years ago I had a quiet student who very politely came into class anonymously. After reading that poem, being satisfied that the class “got” it, we discussed the syllabus and set the class policies, but one student hung around after just staring a hole through the copy of the poem I handed him. He didn’t say anything, but he was in deep reflection.

He wasn’t someone you would pick out as that kind of thinker—sweat pants, untied shoes, and a huge, puffy coat, which he never removed. I’ll call him Hector. Hector, for the remainder of the semester, was always the first student in class. He never turned in any homework assignments or even the major essays. He didn’t ask questions, email me, or come by during office hours. But he was there every class and so he remained on my class roster. I asked him, one day, about six weeks through the semester, if he was going to turn in his essays. “It’s the only way to earn credit,” I added. My logic meant absolutely nothing. He didn’t say anything.

The following week I assigned an in-class essay. It was a narrative essay about an experience that transformed the writer in a single moment. I use a few Gregory Orr poems to sort of set the texture for what a student might see as the realm of possibility. Orr, who accidentally shot and killed his brother in a tragic hunting accident as a young boy, is a poet who always resonates with my students no matter which college or classroom I find myself.

All Hector did was write the most remarkable narrative I had read in the last ten years—by any writer. His grammar was horrid. He was a king of comma splices, and yet it didn’t matter. His poor spelling couldn’t detract from the fact that his story was searing—it was sincere, bold, and full of everything that I ask and beg for from my “successful” students. He told a story about hanging out downtown. He and his friend were minding their own business when his friend was shot by a car driving past them. It all happened fast. Hector did all he could, but his friend died right there. Late that evening he went to see his friend’s mother. He felt like he had to deliver the terrible news. His shirt stained with blood, he stood there on the stoop waiting for the woman to open the door. When she saw him, saying nothing, she slapped him. She closed the door. He stood there a long time before he was able to turn to go home.

When I hear someone suggest that we can do something poetry-related on campus because it is April, I want to scream inside. Relegating poetry to a single month, or perhaps a single event, most college students have few opportunities to ever learn that they, too, have the power to set language on fire and turn hearts toward the sound of image. I am a poet and I cannot teach as someone who studied composition theory. I don’t mind that and I hope that my students don’t either.

When I read Hector’s narrative I just about lost it. It was beautifully written. I pressed that pen firmly on his blue exam booklet and wrote 25/25. It was the only grade I ever gave him. He was a terrible student, but no student has taught me more.

Today, through this experience, I make it my goal to teach with the intention of “seeing” every student’s potential. I know, down deep, many simply need the opportunity to express the experiences that shape their lives. I know that is the territory where composition teachers don’t generally go. I go there because I am never disappointed by what I find. Many produce the first poem or essay that they actually enjoy writing. Can you put a price on that?

Richard Rohr says that the way we do anything is likely the way we do everything. If we fail to make a mark in the lives of those who we are charged to teach and inform, perhaps it has been because we too have relinquished the realm of experiential learning of what grades can’t ever measure.

And that, to me, is a far worse academic offense. 

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Jae Newman, author of Collage of Seoul (Cascade Books 2015), lives in Rochester, New York, with his wife and daughters. He teaches writing courses at Monroe Community College and Roberts Wesleyan College. His poetry has been published in many national journals including: The Bellingham Review, Redivider, Karamu, Saranac Review, and Rock & Sling. In 2008, his poem “Honeymoons” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. A graduate of the MFA in Writing Program at Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky, Newman has recently completed a MA in Theological Studies at Northeastern Seminary




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