The Music You Hate

Every year, I have students that are studying for the SAT Subject Test in Literature or the AP in Literature and Composition. I always love working with these students because we get to talk about poetry and I get to introduce them to poetry in a way that they haven’t ever experienced before. As a rule, I run them through some of the standards of poetry. At the very least, we cover:

Dover Beach

La Belle Dame Sans Merci

My Last Duchess

The Red Wheelbarrow


And numerous others. But I also have a list of poems that I try to introduce students to that, perhaps, piques their interest in the art form a little more than the standards. I typically introduce them to the weirder poems, the weirder things.

The Express

Porphyria’s Lover


anyone lived in a pretty how town

Richard Cory

What Lips My Lips Have Kissed

I Dreamed I Moved Among The Elysian Fields

It’s a joy, to me, to introduce students to “weird” poetry that makes them think. And, historically, my students have left my office feeling much better about poetry than they had when they arrived.

I was talking about this with a co-worker recently. She expressed dread about poetry, and I suggested to her that her experience wasn’t unique. How many people were made to read Shakespearean sonnets (or drama) in high school, only to find themselves traumatized on the other end and and none the wiser?

I think the optimal lesson in poetry begins with a “spin-the-dial” session with the radio. Does everyone like rap? Does everyone like country? Does everyone like Top 40? No. No. No. That’s not the point. The idea of pop music, or even classical music for that matter, isn’t that everyone is supposed to like everything. Individual styles and individual aesthetics are meant to reach different groups of people, in different ways, for different reasons. Nobody is expected to enjoy both Ariana Grande and Elvis. If they do, that’s great. But if they don’t, that’s art.

I wish more teachers would spin the dial on the first lesson about poetry, because then the subsequent barrage of poetry – some of which might reach students, but most of which will certainly not – will make much more sense to them. They’ll stop hitting a cement wall like a skein of loose silk the moment they encounter a poem they don’t like. They’ll start accepting that they aren’t supposed to appreciate or even be moved by all poetry, and they’ll begin the long hard work of deciphering why a particular poem might reach someone else.

Poetry, music, has never been about reaching everyone. It’s high time we stopped pretending like it was supposed to.


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