When I was in the 8th grade, our language arts teacher in what was then called junior high school had us memorize our first real poem, "In Flanders Fields."
Adolescence is a complicated enough time for those passing through it, and generally coincides with a student's first serious introduction to the concept of poetry beyond the Dr. Seuss books of childhood. Unfortunately, it can also become associated with unpleasant aspects of school life, including occasionally bad teachers, and teens develop a skewed perception of the literary form and even an aversion to poetry itself.
A savvy teacher will associate the popular lyrics of the day with the introduction of poetry to middle school students, and not just rely on the time-worn opportunities to memorize a piece like "In Flanders Fields," which for all its power and sincerity is far removed from the realities of today's teen.
Middle school students should be exposed to poetry in a way that energizes and excites them and helps them see the association to song lyric as a way to communicate something in distilled form. They should learn the joy of the sound of words and not just stumble over the complication of words.
Here are some of my favorite poems appropriate for introducing middle schoolers to the form, grouped in categories that have relevance in contemporary life.
"I'm nobody! Who are you? Are you nobody, too?" Emily Dickinson's famous lines reach out to the outsider in all of us and assures it's okay to be different, to not be part of the in crowd. Yeats takes a student through a lyric daydream in a boring classroom to a "brightening glance. How can we know the dancer from the dance?"
I'm Nobody - Emily Dickinson
Provide, Provide - Robert Frost
The Silken Tent - Robert Frost
Among School Children - William Butler Yeats
Fragility of life:
Most students will understand by adolescence that life can be taken in an instant. They will know about 9/11 and Columbine. Maybe they've lost a friend or a family member. Stevie Smith's famous "Not Waving But Drowning" is an excellent piece to have students at that level memorize. Millay's bittersweet sonnet has been set to music, a good find if the teacher can locate it.
Out, Out - Robert Frost
Not Waving But Drowning - Stevie Smith
Ozymandias - Percy Bysse Shelley
If I Should Learn - Edna St. Vincent Millay
Fragility of the planet:
Teens are also keenly aware of current issues like global warming and the concept of world community in saving the planet. Hopkins last stanza of "Inversnaid" should go past the wonderful sound of the words to something very real for them: "What would the world be, once bereft/Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,/O let them be left, wildness and wet;/Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet."
Fire and Ice - Robert Frost
Inversnaid - Gerard Manley Hopkins
For Whom the Bell Tolls - John Donne
In poetry as in art, sometimes a piece is just a snapshot of life, an illustration of an image, whether it's longing for home in England in April, the stirrings of bedtime, the contents of a refrigerator, or a spider web.
This Is Just to Say - William Carlos Williams
Home Thoughts, from Abroad - Robert Browning
This Englishwoman Is So Refined - Stevie Smith
maggie and milly and molly and may - e.e. cummings
Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock - Wallace Stevens
(The Silken Tent - Robert Frost)
Students should be taught not to be afraid of poetry, but to use it like just another tool at their disposal, like their digital camera, their smart phone, their laptop. Snyder's "How Poetry Comes to Me" captures perfectly the tentative introduction "over the boulders at night. . .frightened outside the range of my campfire," and Parra's poem brings it all home: "In poetry everything is permitted. With only this condition of course, You have to improve the blank page."
How to Eat a Poem - Eve Merriam
How Poetry Comes to Me - Gary Snyder
Young Poets - Nicanor Parra
(This Englishwoman is So Refined - Stevie Smith)