“Get poetry into the high schools!” Shortly before he died in 1963, Robert Frost told Marie Bullock, founder, and president of the Academy of American Poets, that not merely poetry, but poets belonged in schools. She started the “Poets in the Schools” program in 1966, sending poets like Donald Hall—by then the former poetry editor of The Paris Review—into public schools. “Poets are used to reading to college students,” Hall told Life magazine. When he visited Amelia Earhart Junior High School in Detroit, he was surrounded by eager students who asked him to recite poems in the hallway. At nearby Hutchins Junior High School, kids chanted repeating stanzas along with him.
“Poetry has a huge potential audience in this country,” Hall said. “The young are ready: they lack only the teachers and poets and boards of education to bring it to them.” Fifteen years of teaching high school English has shown me that Hall is right. Teenagers are our most buoyant selves; they are also skeptical, curious, stubborn, selfish, selfless. Storytelling—on their own terms, in their own language—is a huge part of their lives. Poetry could reach them.
Unfortunately, it often doesn’t—but I’m excited by a new trend led by Melissa Smith, a North Carolina teacher. The Teach Living Poets initiative (found online as #TeachLivingPoets) encourages teachers of young students to bring contemporary voices into the classroom. Smith, who teaches at Lake Norman Charter High School in Huntersville, tells me that she started following more poets on Twitter a few years ago. She loved the poems they’d posted, and wanted to share them with her students. “I didn’t know all the intricacies of the poem or even what it meant all the time,” she says. “I just knew I really liked it and wanted to talk about it with someone.”