Vague and in Vogue: On Teaching Poetry to Teenagers

A Guest Post by Ben Berman

We want to see ourselves in our heroes – this is why Japanese comic artists draw their protagonists without a great deal of detail.  Those big round eyes and small squiggly noses allow readers to see their own faces in their heroes’ features.  Villains, on the other hand, are often drawn with photographic precision – specificity, the artists believe, invokes a sense of otherness – and otherness, in turn, invokes a sense of danger (see Arizona Senate Bill 1070).

And yet, some of my high school students recently accused me of not being specific enough.  Or, as one wrote in a course evaluation – sometimes, some of his answers can be kind of vague.  But vague is what I save for my wife when she wants to know how I like her meatloaf. Vague is what I drop on my parents when they start asking about more grandchildren. No, I prefer to believe that I’m leading my students to Keats’ dream of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.

Because the truth is I’m not interested in vagueness; it’s her more sophisticated and mysterious cousin, ambiguity, that I’m attracted to.  And if we want our students to write compelling stories and poems then we must help them realize that certainty, though seductive, is also often reductive.  Of course, in order to do this, we must also figure out a way to reward students for grappling with complexity and nuance over constructing pieces with clear beginnings, middles and ends.

Not that I have anything against clarity, but when I think back to my favorite teachers, I didn’t love them for what they taught me – I loved how they unsettled what I thought I knew. Some of them ridiculed me publicly. All of them were unreasonable.  And they prepared me to wrestle with matters that resisted an easy pin – which, ultimately, is what keeps me writing.

The challenge, as always, is getting students to buy in, which can be hard when most kids don’t think of creative writing as a way of life but as a class that meets for fifty minutes four times a week. And  I’ve come to appreciate – after a number of missteps – how important it is to remember that many teenagers are at a point in their lives when they require a certain delicacy when navigating contradictions.  After all, where Walt Whitman saw multitudes, Holden Caulfield saw phonies.

Still, I’d like to believe that when my students complain about my vagueness, they’re not necessarily referring to my habit of saying one thing then immediately entertaining its opposite but are alluding to my handwriting – those tiny green ripples of smudge – each comment as open for interpretation as a Rorschach test.  Does this say great point, a student asks, or grow pot?  Such are the marks that a teacher can leave on young lives.


Ben Berman teaches creative writing classes at Brookline High School and with Grub Street Writers. He has received fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and Somerville Arts Council and honors from the New England Poetry Club. His first book of poems, Strange Borderlands, is coming out soon.