“Why NOT teach poetry?” An interview with Poet Taylor Mali

“Why NOT teach poetry?” might be a simple, irrefutable response to the question of, “Why should we teach poetry?” But published poet, Taylor Mali, writer of What Learning Leaves, creator of game Metaphor Dice, and a TED Talk’s “Best of the Web” speaker, goes beyond that. In an interview with JEI Learning Center, he asks, “What if poetry did not exist altogether?” If that was the case, then surely his life and the whole world would be very different.

In the kickoff interview for National Poetry Month, the one-time school teacher and full-time poet spoke with JEI about teaching, poetry, and teaching poetry. His love for the art, particularly poetry slam, is credited to his literary family (his mother wrote children’s books while his father channeled Dr. Seuss). They would often hold poetry recitals at large gatherings, and it was these performances that led to Mali’s interest in acting, poetry slam, and more traditional forms of poetry.

This, along with his love for education, led to his work as a teacher in middle and high schools. He became an advocate for education, writing poems like “What Teachers Make” and “Like Lilly Like Wilson.” Eventually, he started a 12-year-long project to inspire 1,000 people to become teachers, saying:

It took me longer than planned, but it was wonderful to have a reason to get up in the morning that was larger than myself. Early on, my standards were very high (though far from scientific). Towards the end, I’d accept you on my list if you could honestly say that my poetry had pushed you in some way to become a teacher.

Ultimately, Mali left full-time teaching but continued to inspire as a full-time poet, offering both performances of his poems and workshops on the craft of poetry. He cites W.H. Auden, calling poetry “the clear expression of mixed feelings,” which accurately represented multiple situations throughout his lifetime:

Poetry has taught me that nothing is ever all one thing. Everything is everything, usually all at once . . . I couldn’t decide if I wanted to write a poem that wallowed in the woe [of divorce] . . . [o]r a poem that exulted in the excitement of finding a new love. I chastised myself for not being clear about what I wanted! Then I realized the more useful thing would be to write a poem about wanting both: to be the victim and the triumphant underdog!

Poetry is not only powerful for expressing complex feelings but also for understanding life through language. Mali tells JEI, “[P]oetry tries to carve a little bit of truth or beauty or both out of life’s mayhem and fix it in the mind with . . . some other measure of magic. It teaches us the power of language.”

Finally, when asked the big question, “Why learn poetry?” he admitted frustration, as he feels that no answer would be satisfying to someone who needs to ask that question. He answers it anyway with a sort of dystopian fiction:

[P]erhaps the best way to answer the question is in the negative. Not just by saying, “Well, why NOT study poetry?” but imagining a world where poetry did not exist. There’s another quotation about this very possibility that I love (even though I cannot remember who said it): If poetry suddenly ceased to exist, our culture would not become undone, and yet future historians would say of us, “How odd that they had none.”

At JEI, we agree with Taylor Mali that poetry allows for magic, creativity, inspiration, and self-expression. That is why we created a special new poetry unit for the month of April. It is designed to show students the wonder and possibilities of language. The four-week curriculum pulls from our Reading & Writing program and is a great introduction to what this enrichment program has to offer.

Come explore the magic of poetry by finding a JEI Learning Center near you, and learn more about our spotlighted artist, Taylor Mali, to get inspired.