What Can Poetry Offer to Us?: Teaching Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s Oceanic
Updated: May 15
There’s a moment in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre where the protagonist Jane, shifting into the self-assured voice of an Anglican minister—a voice likely inspired by years of listening to her father’s sermons—launches into a defense of poetry: “Poetry destroyed? Genius banished? No! . . . No; they not only live, but reign and redeem: and without their divine influence spread everywhere, you would be in hell—the hell of your own meanness.” In other words, without poetry, we are destined to become a bunch of ignorant morons trapped in our own stupidity. (Sounds like English teacher job security to me!) The passage blindsides you, landing right in the middle of an otherwise mundane description at the end of Jane’s school day. It is as if Brontë had heard some jerk at a Manchester pub near where she wrote Jane Eyre talk smack about poetry and then channeled that rage into this passage—the Victorian version of a subtweet.
I’d like to think that Brontë would be pleased to know that, nearly 200 years later, poetry is indeed not dead. According to a 2019 article in the Guardian, in the United Kingdom “young women aged 13 to 24 are now the biggest consumers of poetry . . . in a market that has grown by 48% over the past five years to £12.3m”—or $16 million US dollars. What’s more is that “instead of buying works by the dead white men who have dominated the canon for centuries, young women are using their economic muscle to drive up sales of works by female poets, making poetry more diverse and representative than ever before” (Ferguson). With the rise of social media, female poets have a platform that allows them to navigate around the publishing houses that for so long have acted as gatekeepers. And with easier access to these works, young women are using their purchasing power more than ever to support other women.
For the past few years, I have used this Guardian article to launch my poetry unit; in a classroom of teenage girls and in a unit on living female poets, the article provides immediate relevance and several talking points about why young people still read and write poetry. This year, instead of filling my unit with a wide variety of poets, though, I decided to try my hand at teaching a single-authored collection: Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s Oceanic.
I was inspired to do so in large part by the creative and intellectual energy of #TeachLivingPoets, a movement founded by English teacher Melissa Alter Smith. My colleague Kate Schenck and I have been borrowing ideas from their website for several years, and while virtually attending the 2020 National Council for Teachers of English conference, I logged into one of their sessions on teaching a single-author poetry collection. Intrigued by the idea of my students deeply engaging with a poet, I listened as Smith and her cohort Susan Barber offered additional rationales for reading an entire collection, the most compelling of which was their observation that reading a poem in isolation is like taking a quote out of context. Poems take on different meanings when we read them as a collection, a community of ideas that take us on a journey.
For some brief context: Prior to this poetry unit, my students had just completed the summer readings, one of which was Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X, a coming-of-age novel-in-verse about a young girl who finds her voice through poetry. The protagonist Xiomara writes poetry to process her feelings, to understand herself and her world, and, ultimately, to communicate her truths, and so as we shifted into Oceanic, I asked my students why else we (and really, they) might read and write poetry, using the Guardian article for additional talking points. We then turned to a quick video of Nezhukumatathil discussing the forces that compelled her to write her Oceanic poems, and we kept this question at the back of our heads as we began our journey into the text: What does poetry offer to us as readers and writers?
Below is a brief overview of some of the ways we played with Oceanic. Again, many of these ideas come directly from #TeachLivingPoets, whose website and new book provide even more really lovely ways for students to engage with poetry.
Thinking about Poetry Collections as Musical Albums
For homework the night before we officially began Oceanic, I asked students to put on their favorite album and journal in response to this question: Why do you think the songs are in this order? For example, consider the lyrics: Is there a story arc? Do certain songs seem to speak to each other? Contradict each other? Do certain motifs emerge? Also: feel free to think beyond the lyrics and consider style, speed, mood, key changes, etc.
The next day, as students shared their responses, I placed their comments under one of two columns: content or style. Statements like “I loved how the artist treated the subject of love” or “She kept returning to images of the sun” I filed under content. Statements like “I loved that the initial songs were mainly in a minor key while the final songs shifted into a major key” or “I appreciated the movement from slow ballad to up-tempo pop over the course of the album” I filed under style. In doing so, my hope was to start establishing that when we analyze texts, we have a lot of tools at the ready: we can analyze what authors say (the content: theme, characterization, conflicts, motifs, etc.) as well as how they say it (the style: connotation, syntax, figurative language, etc.).
The activity was also fun simply for community building, especially since it was still early in the school year: a room full of young women, some who knew each other and others who didn’t, realizing that they love (or love to hate) the same artists and shouting out new bands to check out.
Considering Line Breaks and the Musicality of Language
The question “What distinguishes poetry from prose?” perennially stumps many students, as it did my younger self when meeting my elegant and imposing future grandmother-in-law for the first time. She asked me that very question over dinner, and I couldn’t offer her a cohesive, let alone coherent, answer. Since then, I have encountered two definitions that resonate with me: in A Poetry Handbook, poet Mary Oliver says, “Prose is printed (or written) within the confines of margins, while poetry is written in lines that do not necessarily pay any attention to the margins, especially the right margin.” Critic and poet James Longenbach, in his preface to The Art of the Poetic Line, also links the definition of poetry to lineation: “Poetry is the sound of language organized in lines.”
I offer these definitions to my students, and we listen to two episodes of the poetry podcast The Slowdown: episode 124 (on Nate Marshall’s “the break,” which explores the function of line breaks) and episode 271 (on Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s “When I Am Six,” which, among other highlights, considers the stylistic effects of a prose poem). As a bonus, I later provide a short clip on Nezhukumatathil discussing the musicality of language. Over the course of a couple of class periods, we play with line breaks in our own poems as well as those in Oceanic, collecting some of the musical phrases we encounter along the way.
Considering the Poetic Metaphor
My favorite day of poetry might be when we play Metaphor Dice, a game my colleague Sarette Albin introduced to me a few years ago. Some of my deepest and truest belly laughs as a teacher have come from using these with my students. Essentially, you roll three dice: one that has only abstract nouns (like hope, love, death, etc.), one that has only adjectives (divided, mad, broken, etc.), and one that only has concrete nouns (superhero, wedding gown, tyrant). Once you roll, you string the three words together to create your first line of poetry, using the adjective and concrete noun as a way to explain the abstract concept: for example, “my mind is a handed-down wedding gown” or “truth is a broken quiz” or “poetry is an absent songbird,” etc. Students then expand upon the metaphor, considering how it might be true (or not). Nezhukumatathil’s poem “In Praise of My Manicure” pairs well with this activity because, as students quickly realize, the speaker isn’t just talking about her manicure.
#TeachLivingPoets has a great lesson on creating tone bottles using old water bottles, food dye, glitter, beads, etc.—but lacking these materials (and really, materials period), I decided that my students could walk through a similar process using a page in their Microsoft OneNote and their stylus (all students at my school have a Windows Surface that allows them to easily mark up the screen). Below are the instructions:
As a group, decide at least two tone words for this poem (but of course you can select more, especially if there is a shift in the tone). Assign a color to each of these tones. (Example: inspirational: teal, questioning: gray). These colors will be the background/focus colors of this image.
Then, select at least 5 pieces of evidence from the poem (diction, imagery/figurative language, syntax) that develop these tones. Decide as a group where/how to add them into the image: (example: gloomy diction could be represented by clouds, mysterious imagery could be represented by swirls, etc.)
Then, decide on an image to represent the overall meaning of the poem--either from the internet or hand-drawn by a classmate.
When done, write a short paragraph that functions as an artist statement explaining your choices: what is/are the tones of this poem, and what evidence supports this claim?
Pulling It All Together: Oceanic's Greatest Hits
This activity might have been my favorite, rivaling even Metaphor Dice day. After completing Oceanic, students split into groups, grabbed some empty whiteboard space, and used the following questions as their guide:
Make a five-poem essential playlist from the collection that reflects, in your opinion, the heart of Nezhukumatathil's work.
Write a short 1-2 sentence justification for why each poem is essential: how does it contribute to your group's overall understanding of the poetry collection?
Title your playlist something that captures the essence of the playlist.
Then, create a visual map. Write the title of the five poems on the whiteboard: space them out because you will be drawing various lines between them. Now, start making connections based on these four areas (theme, motifs, structure, and figurative language) by drawing a line between and among poems. Assign a different color to each thread (themes=red, motifs=blue, etc.), so that you use a different color marker to visually connect each of the poems.
What Does this Poem Offer to Me?
As their final assessment, students brought their favorite Oceanic poem to class ready to write a timed essay, and although I had not yet given them the prompt, but given that it had been one of our essential questions, it wasn’t really a surprise: What does this poem offer to me?
To close, I thought I would share a few of their thesis statements, if only to reinforce the Guardian article’s claim that poetry isn’t on death’s door just yet.
In “Inside the Cloud Forest Dome,” Nezhukumatathil juxtaposes nature with various human emotions to reinforce that nature is a haven providing peace and tranquility for wild, unruly minds.
Nezhukumatathil’s “Invitation” illuminates how important it is to not rush through life and instead to rest for a while so that we may better appreciate ourselves and our world.
The speaker’s self-confident tone in Nezhukumatathil’s poem“In Praise of My Manicure,” which is reinforced by how she embraces the traits that distinguish her from the crowd, demonstrates that though we cannot change ourselves, we can learn to be loving and faithful to who we are.
Megan Griffin is a found poet who finds herself poetically searching.
Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Edited by Deborah Lutz, Norton, 2016.
Ferguson, Donna. “‘Keats is Dead…’: How Young Women are Changing the Face of
Poetry.” The Guardian, 26 Jan. 2019.
Longenbach, James. Art of the Poetic Line. Graywolf Press, 2007.
Nekhukumatathil, Aimee. Oceanic. Copper Canyon Press, 2018.
Oliver, Mary. A Poetry Handbook. Harcourt, 1994.