Homeschooling Teens: Exploring Music as Poetry

Call it stubbornness or persistence, but I mentally can’t let go of my aversion to poetry. I don’t understand why I dislike it so. Sophisticated, erudite people like poetry and who doesn’t want to be sophisticated?!

Why can’t I get past this? What is it about this stuff that makes me roll my eyes?

The magnetic poetry was perhaps a start in the right direction. But Fall is here and I’m usually excited to plan a fall-themed poetry tea time. Except I can’t muster the excitement for it this year. I seem to only sporadically sputter when it comes to poetry.

This is a mental bone I won’t stop gnawing. When I’m honest with myself, I feel aggravated with the esoteric quality of some poetry. I suppose it’s like Shakespeare. I don’t mind mental gymnastics, but maybe I do mind antiquated language gymnastics. I’ll work through it if I see a good reason, but to do so just for fun? I’m thinking it may not be my definition of fun.

I don’t know what it means, but I like it!

One day a years-old memory came to me of a family member making fun of me because I liked music “that doesn’t make sense.” (Email me for a list of my other shameful behaviors, such as “always shaves right leg first” and “thinks cilantro is an acceptable herb.”)

If I don’t like poetry because it doesn’t make sense, then why do I like music that “doesn’t make sense.” Because I do! I love Jack White’s music. But not as much as I love Jack Johnson’s. I own every one of his albums. I still have it hard for Pearl Jam and that’s been a 25-year love affair. I’ll even admit to my lingering teenage crush on the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Their songs “don’t make sense” in the way that Taylor Swift is clear about what you should do when haters gonna hate, right?

And it’s not like I listen to the songs and attempt to figure out WHAT IT ALL MEANS. I don’t. I just listen and sing along. Nonetheless, something about music that “doesn’t make sense” draws me in. Why does it do that?

Is it poetry set to music?

I began to pay attention to the actual words in Jack Johnson’s Ones and Zeros song, one of my top favorite songs of his, and I could hear the poetic quality in the opening lines.

There’s a black hole pulling me in
I slowly bend till I see the back of my own sins
I stole my soul from myself now I wonder

While running errands with my music-loving 14-year-old son, I raised the question if he thought songs could simply be poetry set to music. He was intrigued and it turned into a big, juicy conversation that spilled over into the next day.

I wrote the Ones and Zeros opening lines on our white board and we looked at it without the benefit of music setting a rhythm. I didn’t even tell him the stanza was from a song.

What did we think? Was that poetry? What made it so? Our answers: rhyming, line breaks and the fact the meaning wasn’t directly stated.

After telling my son it was a stanza from Jack Johnson, we decided to look at one of his all-time favorite songs and ask the same questions. The conversation progressed to what words we associated with poetry (his on the top left, mine on the top right), what genres/artists might be considered poetic and which wouldn’t.

It was such a fun conversation with my son. I loved hearing his insight and perspective on what and who qualifies as poetry. (Sorry, country music and death metal fans!)

Maybe it’s not poetry itself. Maybe it’s that I’m attempting poetry in a conventional way – similar to the way I was taught it in school. In my mind, I’m equating poetry appreciation with having to like classic poets, like Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Again, that secret intellectual snob comes to sit on my shoulder and tell me how I should be doing things.

There I was, thinking in a schoolish way and that was the problem. There’s a “correct” way to approach the appreciation of poetry and it’s in a classroom-type environment with a guided lesson plan and a poetry anthology full of dead poets.

But what if we find our opening to poetry through unconventional ways?

In fact, that may be the best way some of us find that opening.

I can’t say how this exploration into music as poetry will translate into a better overall understanding of poetry. That’s the sticky thing about rejecting guided lesson plans – there’s no outside learning “expert” to help you feel that Y will lead to Z.

For myself, though, I did gain insight that I personally like the melody of rhyming. That antiquated language is not a good place for me to dive in. And that I have a certain threshold for symbolism before it tips to annoyingly esoteric. Maybe that threshold will expand or maybe that’s just who I am – theoretical only to the point pragmatic quality isn’t lost.

Either way, I am looking forward to The Raven poetry party with a new perspective.