Why it's absolutly, utterly essential to teach poetry to teenagers

In April this year I was invited by my favourite literary organisation in the whole world Women Of Letters to take part in their New York event 'People Of Letters' at the Bowery Electric. The theme was to write a letter 'To The Thing I Wish I'd Written'. My first thought was that I wanted to gush about the Breakfast Club screenplay cause not a day goes by where I don't wish I was John Hughes. However instead I addressed it to the high school curriculum. As someone who regularly visits schools around the world there's SO much that needs improving when it comes to creativity in the classroom. This is my passionate plea to influence the system  by the simple act of teaching poetry.



To the thing I wish I’d written.

I remember the exact moment I wanted to become a poet. I was 12 and the movie Mask had just come out, starring Cher, back when Cher was kinda cool and strong and not made of botox and emoticons. It was a story about a boy named Rocky – played by Eric Stoltz – who had this massive skull deformity that made it look like he was wearing a mask, hence the name of the movie.


Eric Stoltz falls in love with a blind girl, played by Laura Dern. She can’t see his ‘mask’, of course, but like, she SEE’S HIM, you know what I mean? Without judgement.  They fall madly in love. But her parents are upset because Eric Stoltz isn’t a normal boy, and his mum Cher gets all powerful in his defence, and it’s all teary and uplifting, and to my 12 year old heart, stupidly beautiful. Anyway, there’s this scene where Eric Stoltz is explaining colour to the blind Laura Dern. He demonstrates it. He hands her a hot meatball and says, ‘That’s red.’ Then he hands her an icecube, and says, ‘That’s blue’. Then he gets some cotton-wool balls and places them softly in her hand. ‘That’s white,’ he says, and she looks all Laura Dernie and gives this wow-you’re-teaching-me-about-the-world-and-it’s-so-beautiful smile, and something stirred in me. Twelve years old, I jolted upright and announced; ‘I WANT TO TEACH COLOURS TO BLIND GIRLS!’ I was inspired by words, and meaning, and understanding. I wanted to gift the world synaesthesia, to change music into food, food into music, to colour smells, to drink the sky, to paint the rain. I wanted to make poetry! But there wasn’t much opportunity for that at school. BbP_lLSCEAEPbOk

High school wasn’t a place to shake the trees and stir the sky.

High school didn’t ask, ‘What’s inside your crystal well of possibilities, you wondrous little being?’ It was about ticking boxes, results, scores and standing in straight lines. It didn’t want me to change ice-cream into jazz. It said: ‘Ice-cream can’t be jazz, Emilie! D Minus.’

And so, it happens that you are the thing, High School Curriculum, that I wish I’d written. If I had written you, I’d have included shitloads of poetry, because I believe poetry can help teenagers navigate this crazy-ass world.

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Now, I’m not talking soliloquies, sonnets and cinquains, as much as much as the poetry of life, the poetry of art, the art of living, the full Robin Williams smackdown. Think about what it’s like being a teenager: it’s tumultuous. Teens are bored and angry at the same time – they’re bangry!

Life is all over them, it’s itching at their skin. They’ve just shifted from being a kid, all coddled and lunchboxed, to not yet being treated like an adult, but somehow suddenly expected to know what they want to do for the rest of their lives, forever. It’s petrifying. When kids get to high school the band-aid is ripped off and out of the primary blue they’re presented with the fact that the world is full of abhorrent stuff. No one is cupping their ears any more when bad things happen. They’re shuffling into modern history class and finding out about how World War freaking 2 happened – that Nazis happened. That people became Nazis! They’ve gone from learning about founding fathers and explorers to learning about scalping, slavery, witch trials, the Cultural Revolution, ethnic cleansing, North Korea, political prisoners and Pol freakin’ Pot.

And then they go home there’s people screaming and pleading in foreign countries on their TVs, and they’re expected to sit on the couch and eat their schnitzel and act normal. While mum says, ‘What a shame that’s happening over there, now finish your dinner.’

And teenagers must learn that this squirming horrible sensation, this painful hopelessness, this gutting sickening empathy is something they MUST SIMPLY DEAL WITH.


The  world is in TATTERS and instead of going on a screaming rampage they have to finish their homework, brush their teeth and go to bed. All this as hormones burst and splutter inside them, like lava, as their skin spills all over itself, knees knobble, boys and girls try to work out how to talk to each other, relationships rise and crash, their facebook profiles jerk and stammer, their bodies swell and grow, chemicals align and they all fall in love so intensely their hearts push out of their chests like a Pépé le Pew cartoon.


And when they’re not learning about horrors, the good stuff is face-slappingly bewildering as well. They find out there are volcanoes at the bottom of the sea, that the northern lights shimmer and blaze across the sky, that Hubble’s trillion galaxies exist, that, Ladies and Gentlemen, we are floating in space! And the fact that the earth is on its perfect little angle is why there are seasons, polar bears, whales, and bees that make honey that tastes like GOD. They discover – bless their gawky, apprentice brains, hearts and bodies – that sometimes, all of the sudden they’re going to feel the entirety of humanity, they’re going to be standing in line at the cafeteria and their consciousness might suddenly open up like a huge magnolia, and they’ll realise their very existence is just a spore floating through time, and for that millisecond they are at one with the multiverse. They are as free as seaweed.

And amongst all this revelation and mind-blowing lifey-ness, they still have to do their chores. They still have to go to school, they have to be a functioning member of society. Even though their insides have turned hot like sun spits. They’re having ALL THE feelings! Aah!

And no-one is helping them deal with all this! We joke that those things ‘aren’t written in the guidebook’ – but they are! That powerful guide book is already written! By Maya Angelou, Charles Bukowski, Anni DiFranco,Tom Robbins, JD Salinger, Lorde and Eminem.

Poetry can feed young minds but also seed them to grow something unique. It’s the antidote, the solution, the serum, the no-more-gaps! It’s the radioactive spider bite to their impending sense of the mediocre, it’s their hidden ability, their secret power, their Hulk.


Teenagers are not trainee people, they’re people, learning on their feet. Instead of just pouring all of this information into them, and shutting the door while it swirls and bubbles in their hormonal hellfires, let’s give them a chance to speak back to it, let’s encourage them to process, discuss, socialise and analyse all this spluttering chaos and confusion. Let’s help them pause, consider, take stock, rather than simply learning things by rote and churning it through Wikipedia-stained essays. Don’t let them go numb, or use things to numb themselves Let’s use this energy, give them a moment to absorb that it is actually the world we’re talking about – their world – they’re in it, and they can feel it spin under the soles of their feet. If I’d written you, High School Curriculum, it would be emphasised that poetry is that pause, a stocktake of experience.

Poetry helps you bathe in the wonder, and it’s also a useful tool for dealing with the dark times. And I mean like having a sword-in-a-medieval-battle kinda useful. Properly, legitimately essentially, school curriculum-ly useful.



I’d make it so that every day after lunch, they’d learn the name of a new planet, or listen to the rings of Saturn, or feed each other fruit blindfolded. Make metaphors on Mondays, deal with the stupefying possibilities of technology Tuesdays, Wordsworth Wednesdays, philosophy Thursdays and on Friday’s I’d have teachers darken the room and play loud music while the kids could just scream! Scream until they empty themselves of their anxieties, scream until they feel their voices align with their hearts, or in the words of Whitman, sound their barbaric YAWPS from the rooftops of the world. I’d have them write pages and pages of these thoughts and discoveries.

Now, don’t worry – I’m not suggesting that we’d then have to read all this stuff. Jesus! Can you imagine? No, this is about teenagers rolling it around their minds, letting it out, chewing it over, being encouraged to examine their lives rather than just having lives heaped upon them.

A poetry-packed curriculum might help teenagers leave high school more excited to be alive,to be a part of the pulsating genius that is humanity, brimming with confidence, self assuredness and openness. With well balanced temperaments, without anger issues or a fear of authority or a fear of anything. Because school shouldn’t just be about ticking boxes – it should be about inventing circles, it should teach you how to be in this world. How to suck the marrow. Putting poetry in young minds is putting cottonwool balls in someone’s hands and saying, ‘That’s white’. It’s about meatballs for red, ice for blue. And then asking: ‘Okay – now show me what’s yellow, what’s green. And now, you wonderful bangry little soul, go find me a rainbow.


So, that’s why I wish I’d written you, High School Curriculum. Expressing yourself, whether it be with words, music or imagery, or all of the above, allows people to take off their mask – not Cher, she should probably leave hers on – but it allows people to take off their Eric Stoltz mask, and express themselves as a creature of the world, so we can really, you know, see them. In the words of WB Yeats: ‘Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.’ So what do you say school curriculum, I’ll get the kindling, you get the matches, lets do this. Yours in always abundant, optimistic enthusiasm,

Emilie Zoey Baker