Virginia Lucas Poetry Scrapbook

"The Prevalence of Poetry in the Classroom in the Nineteenth Century Versus Today"

The Prevalence of Poetry in the Classroom in the Nineteenth Century Versus Today
     During the nineteenth century, poetry was respected and appreciated by most people. Poetry was a way of life, showcased in every classroom and the majority of weekly newspapers. These pieces of work not only provided enjoyment, but also stimulated curiosity of the mind. However, as time moved on the prevalence and importance of poetry in society weakened. People did not consider this kind of literature as necessary as they had before. Society began to use it less and less in the daily curriculum of their growing generations. Today poetry has been pushed behind the main area of study that is heavily focused on: STEM. Although poetry no longer takes precedence in our curriculum we have not totally eliminated it. However, when we consider the techniques and skills poetry teaches, we should be incorporating it more thoroughly in our classrooms and in society than we currently do.  
     During the nineteenth century poetry was visible in all areas of life. Poetry brought different groups of people together under one cohesive language. The influence of poetry took many different forms: in the classroom, as entertainment, and in everyday newspapers. Poetry was identified as “a vehicle of communication for the self and the soul” (Sorby 2). With this popular form of communication, people looked to poetry “to express class aspirations, self-reflection, and pious domesticity [which] helped extend it deep into the population” (Blake 102). This literature had taken over many parts of society, but in a way people enjoyed:

 Men and women read poems at weddings, ceremonies, and funerals. They chiseled lines onto gravestones and monuments commemorating the dead. They put their favorite poems to music and copied out passages into elegantly bound scrapbooks and portfolios containing other cherished thoughts. (Blake 111)

This literature was not only for entertainment, but was an accompaniment for various aspects of people’s lives. People used poetry in the nineteenth century to explain, congratulate, and even mourn the stages of their lives.
     Due to the growing demand for poetry, poets were idolized. In the article “When Readers Become Fans: Nineteenth-Century American Poetry as a Fan Activity,” David Blake introduces his readers to a concept called the “illusion of intimacy” (Blake 101). As the influx of poetry increased in every aspect of life in the nineteenth century, people began to feel a personal relationship with various poets. This “construction of intimacy was vital to the growth of nineteenth-century celebrity culture, for it was intimacy that reading audiences especially liked to consume” when reading poetry (Blake 101). Poets were capable of putting their deepest feelings and struggles into words, which many people admired and latched on to.
     With the admiration that was given to poets and their works in the nineteenth century, it only seemed natural that poetry would play a significant role in the curriculum of school children. Poetry took precedence over other subject matter in the nineteenth-century classroom. Poetry was seen as an “educational experience” and a way of teaching that prepared adolescents for greater success (Sorby 3). Poetry was used as “a measure of their social competence…[while it] reinforced social and literary conventions” (Sorby 4). Teaching poetry in the classroom prepared children for what the real world would expect of them while keeping society’s expectations satisfied. Poetry surrounded every person’s life in the nineteenth century, so teaching students the importance of poetry at a young age, many people believed, would produce  future generations who were well groomed for nineteenth-century literary and social expectations.
     The methods that were used to teach poetry mostly involved repetition; educators hoped that this would embed certain traditions and social norms into growing children. Memorizing and repeating poetry prompted “the progress of individuals if they learned and followed rules of engagement, while on a utopian level it also ratified the group consensus through institutional traditions” (Sorby 11). By repeating poems in a classroom and rooting them in the structure of the curriculum, people believed, students would become a cohesive group of individuals. Introducing poems with lessons incorporated within the lines, teachers believed, would lead to a peaceful and unified future generation. The repetition and lesson plans that incorporated poetry provided entertainment, but were also used in hopes of creating an overall brighter future. Society pushed for poetry in all aspects of life, in hopes of bringing about all of society’s hopeful outcomes. Both Sorby and Blake’s articles support this theory through the examples they give of poetry in society. Poetry was seen as a guide to solving a lot of society’s problems, including pressing issues like death, politics, war, and the overall future success of the country. Even in times when poetry could not solve these worldly problems it was altered into a method of mourning or coping with these changing times. 
     On the other hand, when we try to distinguish where poetry still fits in our society we find that it is not as prevalent. We can, however, look to Melissa Gregory’s findings, specifically the article “Women Writers, Nineteenth Century Nursery Rhyme and Lyric Innovations.” This article describes the adolescent literature sector where poetry still exists. Poetry still ranges “from nursery rhymes to advertisement jingles to song lyrics to poetry in the classroom” (Gregory 107). Gregory describes poetry today, not as something that must be taught to a young child to prepare them for a brighter future, as Sorby described in her study of the nineteenth century, but as something used with younger children to grant simple enjoyment or entertainment. Poetry today is not expected to create a better society or a more cohesive set of individuals, but is used as a pre-literacy learning mechanism.
     Gregory specifically looks at nursery rhymes. Nursery rhymes present a song-like recitation of a poem and usuall “adopt both a maternal perspective and voice” (Gregory 108). Nursery rhymes for centuries have been used when working with babies. Although this form of poetry may not be significant to the higher education classroom, we must not declare poetry to be completely unused as a pedagogical tool. The use of nursery rhymes when working with babies is still common in the twenty-first century. Although this form of poetry is not used in the secondary or higher education classroom, it still represents a form of literary practice.  Poetry may not be held in such high regard as in previous centuries, but we still use this literature to entertain and to begin to teach our younger generations simple words and literary structures.
     Nevertheless, when comparing the prevalence of poetry in society over the centuries it is quite clear that poetry has lost its vitality during recent decades. Recently, “here in the United States, we seem to take poetry for granted. We have become shortsighted, paying less and less critical and pedagogical attention” (Gregory 107). Due to the changing demand for certain professions and skills over the years there has been a large push in the curriculum for STEM education. STEM stands for “ science, technology, engineering and math” and is now regarded as of higher importance than our previously idolized arts. Although we have seen a large inflation in the importance of these other subjects, poetry is not and should not be completely disregarded.
      Many scholars believe this “pattern of long-term decline” in the teaching of poetry should not be the case, and that we should use poetry more often in our current curriculum (Farber 214). With poetry there is an obvious link to creativity, which can be defined as broadly as the ability to use one’s ideas “to make a tangible and useful contribution to the field in which [an] innovation will occur” (Piirto 1).  Many areas of our society have shown a lack of these two traits—innovation and creativity—over the years, despite the fact that they can be seen as important in any field. Some scholars believe we should be using poetry and its lessons in creativity to promote innovation in all areas of life, just as we did in the nineteenth century.
      Although it may not be possible to infuse our society with as much poetry as there was in the nineteenth century, the techniques poetry teaches, including analytical thinking and reading, are still useful (Farber). Poetry and various forms of literature have been neglected due to the changing demands in professions. Teachers have begun to teach to standardized tests, rather than emphasizing disciplined learning by teaching the elements that poetry and other literary categories have to offer.  These tests have become the focus of many schools and have come to determine “the fates of not only individual students but also their teachers” (Kamenetz 7). Standardized tests define “emotional, social, moral, spiritual, creative and physical development as marginal, extracurricular” and less important (Kamenetz 7). Due to the pressures of these exams, students are given little time to create and imagine in their classrooms. This is partially a result of the fact that “when people speak or think of creativity, they mistakenly think of it as having only to do with the visual arts and the other arts” (Piirto 1).  However, we must not let our pre-conceived notions of poetry or the creative arts in general blind us to the true greatness creativity can lend our societies.
      In the article “The Need for Revision: Curriculum, Literature, and the 21st Century,” David Owen explains that “whatever the content of the subject matter, we all still do most of our teaching and research work” with the neglected skills that the study of literature and poetry provides (Owen 13). Similarly, Chapman Frazier notes that “[t]he process of creating a poem not only demonstrates the inherent characteristics of the imaginative experience, but… validates diverse student voices and establishes the foundation for a classroom community” (Frazier 65). Creating a diversified and creative classroom, Frazier believes, will lead to successful students. Although the points differ within the two texts, both of these authors give well-established reasons for their mission to put poetry back into the school system.
     So why is it that society is lacking this “fundamental” area in our current curriculum if the skills are still necessary? The obvious reason, as stated before, is the increased demand for STEM professionals. However, there is an identifiable link between creativity and STEM that should be acknowledged. Although literature and the arts should be regarded on their own as having importance to the overall well being of our society, it is still possible to show the correlation of skills between the arts and sciences. Schools are focusing more on STEM and teaching their students these techniques and ideas at a young age to help them prepare for what is regarded as an ideal profession. The desire for STEM majors is much higher due to the direction our society is moving and the desire for new, innovative technologies. But creativity and innovation, as discussed above, are skills that knowing and writing poetry can impart. Owen explains the importance of creativity and its ability to help transform even our most highly regarded STEM professions:

Eventually, though, through extensive application of the current paradigm, scientists become aware of an anomaly, or recognize that “nature has somehow violated the paradigm-induced expectations that govern normal science.” Scientists then explore and attempt to verify the anomaly, until eventually “the paradigm theory has been adjusted so that the anomalous has become the expected.” To do this, a scientist must learn “to see nature in a different way.”… For this reason, “creative scientists” must occasionally be like risk-taking, creative artists, “able to live in a world out of joint,” working without a paradigm net. They have to be capable of revision. (Owen 24)  

While some people may not see the importance poetry specifically holds, the techniques and skills we learn from writing and reading poetry can aid someone in any chosen profession.  Although there may be a growing demand for STEM professionals, communicating and distributing findings, techniques, and methods in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics must all be done through language. If our society continues to focus solely on one set of tools, like STEM, our future generations will “end up with an increasingly narrow worldview and set of skills” (Owen 18). Conclusively, language is what binds all groups of people together, and as such it allows for innovations, relationships and growth in our communities.
      Besides the demand for STEM professions, there is another neglected reason why students show little interest in studying poetry: students often believe poetry is difficult to read and requires too much analytical thinking. However, what if there was a way to teach poetry like our ancestors did (Owen)? What if we could help our growing generations learn to love reading and writing literature, exercising their creativity, and analyzing poetic form? In his article “On Not Betraying Poetry,” Jerry Farber challenges the current methods of teaching poetry. The current student tends to feel overwhelmed and anxious when having to decide on the overall meaning of a poem, adding to their dislike of poetry. Farber suggests a natural, out-of-the-classroom approach like the ones the nineteenth century used, to potentially move students to work closely with poetry again.
     Despite the negative connotations sometimes associated with poetry, we must not neglect the gifts it can grant, but find an alternative way to bring it back into our curriculum. While technical skills may be deemed as more important in the twenty-first century, the creative skills associated with poetry can still be used. Creativity and poetry must be woven back into current educational practices due to the life skills literature can teach. Over time many students and educators have become unaware of the importance of creative skills and must be informed about them. Owen, Frazier, Farber and many other scholars establish the reasoning behind the importance of creativity and poetry in the modern classroom. These skills should not be labeled as insignificant in this modern era and should still be regarded as important for growing minds in our current society.
     When looking over the course of history and the significance poetry has had, it is quite disappointing that poetry has been placed on the back burner of schools’ curricula; however, while poetry may not be as prevalent in our current time, it still does exist. Poetry has the ability to transform and to assist our societies, just like STEM can with its technological innovations.  Without this major form of literature and creativity we would remain in a paused state with no future. The significance of poetry has dwindled over the years, but we must not forget that the current state we are in is in part a reflection of this forgotten language and under appreciated skill.
Works Cited
Betts, William W. “The Poem in the Classroom.” Studies in the Humanities, vol. 1, no. 1,
            1969, pp. 1-7. ProQuest, doi: 1312025948.

Blake, David Haven. "When Readers Become Fans: Nineteenth-Century American

Poetry as a Fan Activity." American Studies, vol. 52, no. 1, 2012, pp.99-122. JSTOR,

Farber, Jerry. “On Not Betraying Poetry.” Pedagogy, vol. 15, no. 2, 2015, pp. 213-232. Project
            Muse, doi: 0.1215/15314200-2844985.

Frazier, Chapman. “Building Community through Poetry: A Role for Imagination in the
Classroom.” The English Journal, vol. 92, no. 5, 2003, pp. 65-70. JSTOR, doi: 10.2307/3650427.

Gregory Melissa V. “Women Writers, Nineteenth-Century Nursery Rhyme and Lyric
Innovation: Nineteenth-Century Rhyme.” Literature Compass, vol. 12, no. 3, 2015, pp. 106-118. Wiley Online Library, doi: 10.1111/lic3.12207.

Kamenetz, Anya. The Test. Public Affairs Publishers, 2015.

Owen, David P. The Need for Revision: Curriculum, Literature, and the 21st Century.” Sense Publishers, 2011.

Piirto, Jane. Creativity for 21st Century Skills: How to Embed Creativity into the Curriculum.
            Sense Publishers, 2011.

Sorby, Angela. Schoolroom Poets: Childhood and the Place of American Poetry, 1865-
1917. University of New Hampshire Press, 2005.