How to Help Teens Discover Poetry

Halfway through college, I still hated poetry.

I kept it hidden pretty well. You’re not supposed to hate poetry if you’re an English Education major. You’re supposed to love anything to do with writing and uphold all of these classic poets and authors who have been upheld since (what feels like) the beginning of time.

But mostly, I got bored reading poetry. Sure, it was something I was capable of doing, but it definitely wasn’t something I enjoyed. Like most students, I looked at poems as a short piece a writer double-dipped in things like “metaphors” and “conceits” before giving them to teachers to use as a way to make their students’ heads hurt as they tried to figure out the “deeper meaning” of each poem. Poetry just seemed like a lot of work.

Then Ted Kooser came to do a reading at my college.


I only went because my English professors were providing extra credit for those who attended. Then I promptly squeezed the arms of my chair as hard as possible for the next hour or so as Ted Kooser read a variety of his works.

I did not realize poetry could be like this, I thought to myself. See, Ted didn’t really seem to worry about rhyme or meter or that type of thing. His sole concern seemed to be finding ways to relate everyday moments in ways that made you stop and think. To recognize something and describe it in a way that you didn’t expect but made you blurt out “Exactly! That’s exactly right!” once you heard or read it.

And that’s when I realized that I didn’t hate poetry. I just hadn’t found the right poet until that moment. I proceeded to buy and eat up all of Ted’s books. I talked with professors and researched online and found other poets who wrote in a similar vein that I liked. Poets like Billy Collins, Donald Hall, Naomi Shihab Nye, Taylor Mali, and Tania Runyan.

Many young adults don’t enjoy poetry, but you can help them find find “their” poet and discover the joys of poetry.

how to help teens discover poetry

I started writing poems and sending them out in the hopes of getting published. I sang the praises of poetry wherever I went. Here are some ways I’ve tried to promote poetry in my classroom and library:

  1. Go through the submissions process yourself in full view of your students or patrons – I know that not everyone loves to write and even fewer people love to write poems but modeling is so important when it comes to generating interest in students and/or patrons. If you show people that you’re not just paying lip service to poetry but you’re in the same boat as them, sending out your work to different publications, they tend to take it more seriously. I have created what I’ve named “The Pillar of Rejection” in the school library where I work now. I post the collection of poems I’m trying to get published and, as the inevitable rejections rush in, I proudly display them for all students/patrons to see. (Taking the time to white out the email addresses of the literary magazines if they’re the editor’s personal email. Some lit. magazines are run by only a few people!) The students at my school like to come in and read my rejection slips. They’ll chuckle and then look at me out of the corner of one eye to see if I’ll be offended. That gives me a chance to talk to them about rejection and how even the best writers get rejected all the time.
  1. Try to build a diverse collection of poetry – If it took me until I was twenty to find the perfect poet to act as a gateway into a love of poetry, it stands to reason that you’ll need a good collection of works from poets of different backgrounds and styles to meet diverse needs. I think it’s especially important to weave together a balanced collection of classic and contemporary poets. You don’t want to ostracize fans of either group. Contemporary poems are often the ones that are easier to connect with young people but, at least in my experience, those poems often end up connecting me with classic poets based on style and allusion.
  1. Don’t turn down your nose at poetry some might not consider “literary.” – One year when I was an English teacher, I spent a class period listening to and breaking down the poetic elements of Disney songs with my students. I wish you could have seen the look of horror on the faces of most of the males in my classes as their bearded, male English teacher did a word-for-word reenactment of “Part Of Your World” from The Little Mermaid. It seems ridiculous but it was nice to see students connect with poetry through something they interacted with on a daily basis: their music. We’d talk about how when students found a particular selection of song lyrics they liked, there was no reason we couldn’t recognize the poetic elements that were there. We’d talk about metaphors and similes and students would be amazed at the frequency with which poetic elements showed up in songs. Whenever I decorate for National Poetry Month, I make sure to try to post song lyrics from different bands to prove to students that poetry affects them in ways they’ve never thought about.

Here are poems I love to prescribe to people who tell me they’re not into poetry:

Spoken Word:

I think it’s important to show people (which in my case is mostly students) that writing is not something to take for granted. Being able to put words together in ways that move people is a skill. Showing others that there are specific poets who will speak to them is important to me because, as a teacher and now as a librarian, I’ve seen the faces of my students fall as they begin a poetry unit.

“Mr. Evans,” they say. “I don’t get poetry. I hate it.”

“No,” I reply as I pass them a book by Ted Kooser or Billy Collins. “You just haven’t found the right poet yet.”

— Ethan Evans, currently reading Made for You by Melissa Marr and listening to Dark Places by Gillian Flynn whenever he’s driving somewhere