Friday, April 4, 2014

The Common Core’s Dead Poets Society

I decided to celebrate National Poetry Month by closely reading the Common Core recommended poetry list from Appendix B of the Common CoreStandards in English/Language Arts. Altogether, the lists offer a selection of 80 poems that I think we would all find fairly representative across the broad spectrum of poetry that might be chosen as exemplars. The people gathering the list obviously chose with an eye to quality and diversity and the introduction cautioned that the list was only a sample and that teachers should use it as a guide and not as a definitive list.

The problem with any list, of course, and especially a list in a document that has been given the power of the Common Core, is that it tends to become the de facto list from which teachers, and perhaps more importantly, publishers, choose when deciding what should be taught. I would expect to see these poems dominating text book anthologies for the foreseeable future.

On further analysis of the list, however, I did discover something, perhaps not surprising, but certainly concerning. Of the sixty poets represented on the list fifty were dead, most long dead, and only ten were living. Of the ten living poets listed none were born after 1954. Perhaps we should call it the Dead and Geriatric Poets Society.

In a way this is natural. For many years English anthologies were filled with the works of dead white men. Over the past two decades or so, we have managed to become more diverse in our offerings, but the idea that the old canon is still the canon to be studied persists, as the Common Core exemplars show. But have there really been no poems worthy of being exemplars written by poets who are not either dead or eligible for social security?

And by the way, if we can offer no contemporary examples of great poetry to our young people, are we sending the message that poetry is not for you? That poetry is a thing of the past? That poetry is for ivory towers and dilettante drawing rooms and not really a part of the student’s world of today. Are there no poems of the 21st century worthy of being included in a document aimed at 21st century skills?

And so as a public service, I have searched out some contemporary, living and lively poets to supplement the staid Common Core list. They are actually quite easy to find and glorious to read. I have provided a link to one poem from each of these authors, but you will find many more on the various web sites. Some good sources for poetry of all kinds, for all ages and occasions and curriculums include,, and For this list, I also found this web article on Rita Dove’s List of Young Poet’s to Watch very helpful

One caveat, I included Mark Doty even though he just turned 60 because he is a personal favorite and a poet you all should know. Here is the list, by no means definitive, but a place to start.

Denise Duhamel
Mark Doty
Daisy Fried
Lisa Zaran
David Berman
Carl Adamshick
Stephen Burt
Rafael Campo
Ken Chen
Jericho Brown
Claire Kageyama-Ramakrishnan
Katherine Larson
Dave Lucas
Aimee Nezhukumatathil
Camille T. Dungy
Brian Teare

So, I invite you to join me, during National Poetry Month, in reading and sharing with students, young poets who may not (yet) appear in anthologies or on Common Core lists.

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