Poetry Makes Nothing Happen

“Culture is what presents us with the kinds of valuable things that can fill a life. And insofar as we can recognize the value in those things and make them part of our lives, our lives are meaningful.”

Poetry makes nothing happen, so W. H. Auden famously said. And there are Sunday afternoons where I wonder why I am teaching it to middle school students. Make no mistake: for all my enthusiasm and bantering in class, I understood from the beginning what sort of transaction this was. I had some skill with words and needed the money, the students I tutor needed to bump that B in English to an A. That, at least, was something poetry could make happen.

Regardless, I was determined to be a good teacher. From my eleven some years of experience as a student, I realized what separated good teachers from dictation machines was their uncanny ability to make both unmotivated and externally-motivated students internally-driven. Rather than expecting students to be naturally engaged (really, it’s a Sunday afternoon, and they’re learning), I had to adapt my delivery. What better way to learn about rhythm and rhyme in poetry than by exploring rap? That lesson, we clapped to the lyrics of Hamilton and listened to rap lines in Korean pop songs so that, divorced from lingual meaning, the intonations of rhythm stood on their own. As a challenge, we compared romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Ozymandias to Coldplay’s Viva la Vida, which, though...

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