Amanda Gorman Showed Why Schools Should Teach Poetry

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President Joe Biden finally took his oath of office during the inauguration ceremony on Wednesday. Having overcome historic obstacles, he was almost upstaged by a poet — a fitting coda to the investiture of the nation’s poetry-lover-in-chief.

The performance of “The Hill We Climb” by Amanda Gorman, the U.S. youth poet laureate, brought politicians and dignitaries to their feet and set YouTube ablaze.

Nobody was more enthusiastic than teachers, who took to Twitter to celebrate the 22-year-old poet and her work as an inspiration for their students and quickly incorporated the poem into their lesson plans.

Gorman’s debut turned out to be a much needed uplift, not just for a nation battered by Covid-19 and shocked by the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, but for English curricula that have often been shorn of great literature and poetry.

For too long, poetry has been treated as impractical, and even frivolous, with just 12% of the U.S. adults reporting, in 2018, that they had read a poem during the previous year. Perversely, that sad metric represented a major improvement over the previous decade, when annual poetry reading fell to below 7%. With schools encouraged to focus on practical subjects such as math, science and engineering, and a growing emphasis on nonfiction in the Common Core standards used to help states and school systems decide what to teach, poetry has become an afterthought.

It shouldn’t be. Poetry can be inspirational and teach important lessons about communication (thanks again, Amanda Gorman). It can even be practical, as poetry-loving business executives have long asserted. Elevating the role of poetry also could serve as a low-cost way to bolster student creativity and engagement.

For children, poetry serves as a key to literacy with the rhythm and cadence of books like Dr. Seuss’s “Cat in the Hat” helping even the youngest decode words and meaning, while its absurd rhymes make reading fun. Think of Thing One and Thing Two and the havoc they’ll do.

As children get older, the metaphors and ambiguity of more complex poems serve as an intellectual puzzle, helping youngsters analyze, make connections between words and concepts, and foster critical thinking. Poetry teaches grammar in bite-sized stanzas. Great poems embed unforgettable images and teach the power that a few spare words by Carl Sandburg can convey:

The fog comes
on little cat feet.
It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

Gorman herself described the research skills that her inaugural poem employed, including examining the work of earlier poet laureates, as well as the oratory of Fredrick Douglass and President Abraham Lincoln. She drew on the musical “Hamilton,” which pays homage to hip hop and rap, the street poetry that rose out of economic devastation in the 1970s. And she examined tweets following the Capitol riot, which inspired the line, “We’ve seen a force that would shatter this nation rather than share it.”

For Gorman and Biden, who both wrestled with speech impediments, reciting poetry paved the way to eloquence. Gorman has trouble pronouncing Rs, so she practiced the rap lyrics of “Aaron Burr, Sir” from “Hamilton.” To help him overcome a stutter, Biden recited the poems of William Butler Yeats.

For poor children, from New York City to New Delhi, poetry serves as an especially important outlet for self-expression and even for promoting mental health. In Allison Baxter’s class of English-language learners at West Chicago high school, teaching Langston Hughes’s poem “Harlem” is a key to understanding Lorraine Hansberry’s play, “A Raisin in the Sun.” The poem begins:

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?

The sophistication of the language and grammar in both the poem and the play provide a welcome challenge for students who relish reciting excerpts from both works, Baxter says. They also offer a window on the Chicago of Hansberry’s youth and an opportunity to help introduce students to their adopted city. 

Poetry has its real-world uses, too. Sidney Harman, the founder of the audio-technology company Harman Kardon, once famously said: “Get me poets as managers. Poets are our original systems thinkers.” (Harman endowed a writer-in-residence program at Baruch College; I’m on the program’s selection committee.)

Consider the frustration of Wes Chapman, a health-care technology entrepreneur, who once rejected dozens of applicants for a marketing job at his Hanover, New Hampshire-based startup M2S — English majors from Dartmouth College, his alma mater — because none of them could identify a favorite poem or poet. “Marketing is a job that requires command of language and understanding how words and images influence people,” says Chapman, who notes that the scientists he worked with, at the time, recited poetry. Although Chapman favors 19th-century verse, he eventually hired a young woman who was able to recite a poem by Maya Angelou.

Poetry is an important part of the liberal arts tradition, which is again being seen as a key to business success.

School principals should encourage teachers to make time for verse. And states and districts should help fund the kinds of organizations — including libraries and student clubs — that offer resources and outlets for student poets. And with states advocating for the federal government to suspend standardized testing this year, in recognition of the difficulties posed by the pandemic, schools could be encouraged to produce year-end projects instead, including those focused on poetry.

During his presidential campaign, Biden repeatedly invoked a Seamus Heaney’s poem, “The Cure at Troy,” and his own determination to make “hope and history rhyme.” Gorman’s Inauguration Day performance is a reminder of the power of poetry to salve a nation struggling to recover from disease, economic devastation and attacks on democracy itself.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andrea Gabor, a former editor at Business Week and U.S. News & World Report, is the Bloomberg chair of business journalism at Baruch College of the City University of New York and the author of "After the Education Wars: How Smart Schools Upend the Business of Reform."

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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