As a student, I had no use for poetry. Beyond Shel Silverstein, which required no effort to understand, poetry felt elusive and fuzzy to me. When a teacher would announce a unit on poetry, I’d cross my fingers in the hope that we wouldn’t actually have to read or write real poems—I hoped it simply meant we’d spend a day or two writing an acrostic poem using the letters of our first names, preferably with extra time to decorate the poems with a good bit of coloring and collaging.
But here’s the thing. While I was actively hating poetry, I was loving music. I loved how the lyrics of songs told a story— about love, happiness, tragedy, history, and experiences. I appreciated when there was rhyme, but I also appreciated that it wasn’t required to make the song work. I loved how a story unfolded throughout a song, always giving me the freedom—as the listener—to interject my own experiences into the story. I appreciated how a refrain reinforced the whole point of the song, using the simple trick of repetition to insist the listener not turn away from the songwriter’s message.
I loved songs so much that I had a thick stack of spiral-bound notebooks filled with my transcriptions of lyrics from my favorite artists. I’d put a cassette into the player, stopping it every line or so to write down the words as I heard them. I liked the process of hearing the words, thinking about their meaning, anticipating what was coming next, and trying to understand the feeling the songwriter was trying to convey. It felt like a journey of discovery to unpack a song, line by line and word by word, until it became a complete and understandable thing. Even when an album actually came with an insert of printed lyrics, I would still transcribe songs on my own, using the official printed version only to check my work. It felt important to do because it seemed to be the only way I could truly understand the song.
I didn’t think for one moment that what I was studying so carefully was poetry. On the contrary, I continued to shun “real” poetry until a stubborn and savvy college-professor-turned-adviser turned my poetry anxiety into poetry love. She refused to let me run away from difficult and complicated poems. She insisted that I stick with a poem until it began to make sense to me. In a lot of ways, the way she walked us through the study of a poem was similar to the way I’d transcribed songs in my notebooks. We read the words, jotting down particular phrases we needed to revisit. We listened, predicted, inferred, reread. We checked our understanding. We discussed, slowly and carefully, digging deep into the words and thinking about the poem’s meaning.
Just like I’d been doing all along with songs.
I was reminded of this a few years ago when I observed a teacher in an eighth-grade language arts class. From earlier conversations, I knew the teacher was planning to work the students through a poem. They didn’t know this, though—not at first. As they settled into their seats, she casually remarked, “I was driving to work today and I heard one of my favorite songs. I would love to share it with you! Would you like to hear it?”
Of course, they said. Who doesn’t like to hang out and listen to music?
The teacher opened her laptop and launched iTunes. “Now. I just want you to listen. Don’t worry about what the song means or whether you like it or not. Just enjoy the sound, the rhythm, and the way the words flow together.”
Thus freed from any responsibility or burden, the students sat back to listen. Their expressions were relaxed and pressure-free as the song opened and the words began float into the room. A few of them nodded along to the song’s beat. A couple closed their eyes; one tilted her head back, swaying her shoulders gently. And when the song was over, they smiled at one another. “I like it,” one said. “Cool song,” another chimed in.
Smiling back at them, the teacher handed them a sheet with the song’s lyrics printed upon it.
“Heeeeyyyyy,” someone said slowly. “These are the words to that song!”
“Yup,” the teacher said, smiling.
“It’s . . . is it a poem?” another student asked.
“Yes. It is,” the teacher replied. She laughed. “Songs are poems, and poems are songs.” She went on to explain that, just like poems, many songs use tricks that we find in poems—literary elements such as alliteration, personification, simile, metaphor, and rhyme. “Let’s go through this particular song and see if we can find some of those things,” she said.
And so they did. Line by line, they read and discussed the lyrics of the song. They discovered and identified common elements of poetry. And, unlike how they would have felt if they had simply been handed the lyrics with instructions to look for meaning, they did it with no anxiety or confusion. After all, there was no reason for it to be difficult, right? They were simply teenagers on a quest to understand the meaning of a song. That’s it.
After their successful study of the song provided by the teacher, the students were given the responsibility of finding their own songs and deconstructing the lyrics to identify elements of poetry within the words. The class couldn’t wait to get started; some of them immediately searched for their favorite songs and artists, and others got together with friends to share ideas about which song or musical genre they’d use. It was an excellent way to expose students to poetry in a stress-less and enjoyable way.
It works for a very simple reason: Young people love music. They always have. They liked it decades ago when listening to scratchy recordings on vinyl; they love it now coming from earbuds and Spotify. They just do. And there are many types of music, so almost anyone can find music they enjoy and appreciate.
I love the idea of opening a poetry unit using song, and I love the idea of continuing a study of poetry by allowing students to bring their own interests into the work. It’s a fantastic gateway between something they already love—a good song—and something they can grow to love: poetry.