Into Teaching Poetry
Copyright © Neil Hester 9/21/06
Ah, yes, the poetry unit. Every year in America we spend one approximately six-weeks on the study of poetry. I consider this a good thing, naturally, but there are certain changes that need to be made in order to create an effective curriculum. Seeing as to how I've recently experienced poetry units (I’m currently in the 10th grade), read poetry sections in generic textbooks, and had teachers ‘enlighten’ me on the art of poetry, my position to comment is rather good, wouldn’t you say?
All right! Behold, the multifarious book of doom that crams fiction, nonfiction, poetry, plays, etc. into a neat little package that costs $59.99 if you lose it. The typical poetry unit in a standard textbook will feature a conglomerate of gold and its fools thrown together as equals (after all, education can't judge in publication: it’s politically incorrect!). This effect is similar to certain poetry anthologies published in the last couple decades, and, safe to say, it’s a terrible one.
If the book is the cause, the effect is confusion. A priority in poetic education should be flat-out exposure to greatness; only great poetry should be taught. When good and bad combine, I doubt students will learn to discern one from another. While the actual analysis or grading of poetry is not something everyone is capable, I do believe most students could be taught to separate the blatant doggerel from the blatantly divine.
Poetry selections also seemed to often be divided up into examples of certain poetic aspects: a poem for rhyme, a poem for rhythm, a poem for analogy. Instead, there should be great poems from different genres to demonstrate the rather large circumference of the poetic sphere. A great war, nonsense, coming-of-age poem, etc. should all be presented to cover a variety of interests, possibly sparking some sort of verve in a percentage of the students.
Also, while more easily interpreted poetry should be used since the average ability of deciphering isn’t very good, difficult poetry should at least be presented to those taking English III/IV. At least give students a *shot* at something like Wallace Stevens’ Yellow Afternoon or T.S. Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock: it brings an even further realization of the complexity of poetry, not to mention the fact that poetry does indeed go past Hallmark.
Finally, teachers: never make a comment you’re not sure about; it’s bad for your health.
Aspects of Poetry
Naturally, the basic aspects of poetry (i.e. rhythm, rhyme, stanzas) are taught and retaught year by year. That's fine. However, I believe a look at what weakens poetry should be given. Teaching students that clichés are no-nos and continuous couplets ([aabb] form) are more often than not a bad thing would push the students to *gasp* attempt to avoid these things (assuming that the teachers grade hard enough)!
Doing a basic run-through of different forms would also prove beneficial; it’s important to understand that there’s more to it than rhyming and free verse. Actually, forms are taught; but it needs to go past limericks, acrostics, haiku, and ‘special’ forms just for teaching. Show students how sonnets, sestinas, and villanelles work. Heck, watch them metaphorically writhe in mental agony as they actually try *writing* a sestina or villanelle in English III/IV; not only will it be somewhat amusing, but it will bring appreciation for how difficult advanced forms can be.
It’s Time to Write!
Ah, yes, the part where the quills hit the oh-so-despised parchment. Let’s get this straight; most students don’t like to write poetry. Also, they’re not good at it. The ones who *do* like doing it still usually aren’t good at it. While this is realized, we’re grading on a teaching scale here, not a ‘normal’ scale. As mentioned before, there are certain things that the students need to be pushed to avoid, lest they get a bad grade:
* annoying rhyme schemes (think repeating couplets)
* repetition without meaning
* bad punctuation
These are things anyone is capable of eventually avoiding through revision. Restrictions like these will not cause students to write *good* poetry, but they will better realize the difficulty in writing even a mediocre work.
Also, writing can go one of two ways: a) the teacher has kids rhyming/writing in form all the time, which causes a lot of forced rhymes and sing-songiness, and b) the teacher has kids write everything in free verse so as to let them easily express themselves, which causes ceaseless prosaic ranting about love, boys, girls, dogs, and cookies. What to do? Do both. It’s not that hard, but it's a common mistake.
Another example of extremes in poetry units is the subject matter. This can also go one of two ways: a) the teacher always picks the topic or has the students write about the same topic as another poem, giving them no chance to write within their interests, and the less common b) the teacher lets kids write about whatever they want the whole time, causing them to stick to similar topics, often the trite subjects mentioned above (gotta love writin’ ‘bout love), and failing to push students outside of their comfort zone (an important task from time to time). As said in the previous paragraph, moderation is needed; assign some poems to be written with a specific subject, but also give’em a chance to go wild... heh... ‘Okay, kids, it’s time to go wild writing, guess what, poetry!’ Yeah right...
For middle school students, I can understand sticking to easier things, like [abab] quatrains, limericks, and haiku. However, the difficulty should slowly ramp up; in 9-10th grade, make’em write a Shakespearean sonnet to give’em a taste of writing in stricter form. 12th grade? As mentioned before: villanelle (and, if they want bonus, let’em write a sestina!). ‘But Neil, that’s way too difficult!’ Hey, I didn't say write a *good* sonnet or villanelle, I just said a sonnet or villanelle. With enough sweat, blood, and erasers, I have confidence that anyone in an honors/AP course can write, at the very least, an incredibly banal and crappy villanelle ~_^ That's fine; they went through the experience, that being the point.
Finally, students should be shown great poems and the techniques therein, and be encouraged to attempt mimicry. I’m not going to go in-depth on this one; let’s just say that it's a good idea and leave it at that.
I'm actually going to leave this one alone: there are some fairly effective acronyms that represent various aspects of writing, such as DIDLS (Diction, Imagery, Details, Language, Syntax) and a longer one that’s specifically for poetry (I can’t remember it at the time). If there’s a problem with this part of the standard poetry unit, it’s minor compared to those mentioned previously. Honestly, I've experienced little/no frustration with this area of poetic education, so I’m done bashing.
I gotta say, it’d be great if they took my advice and made some changes. Unfortunately, I would need a *lot* of academics behind me for something like that to happen, which I doubt is possible (maybe in my next life?). Maybe I can bribe them if I become rich (and not in a filthy fashion, mind you). Or, if I become a dict... actually, come to think of it, I don’t want to be a dictator.
Perhaps I should address the parents instead; expose your children to nursery rhymes. Then step up to a little humor or nonsense verse (read them Lewis Carroll, please; if for no other reason, do it for me). When they’re old enough to understand it, expose them to great poems that have a more basic level of understandability (that's not to say such a poem isn't an onion; merely a more agreeable onion to the young folk, y’know, sweeter or something of that sort). From here, slowly ramp up the difficulty until they become teenagers and inevitably stop paying attention to you. This is the part where you pray, or cram poetry down their throats in some form or fashion. Your call.
Okay, so I got a bit off-topic the past couple paragraphs. Point in case... wait a minute. Strike that, reverse it; poetry is being taught in an incorrect manner, which contributes to the lack of concern/interest for poetry in students. Shame, isn’t it? We can only hope that some slow reformation will eventually occur...
[Dan replies: I agree with almost all your points in the real world. It is a shame that we live in such a deliterate- not illiterate- age. In the best of all worlds bad poetry would be taught as well, because one can learn as much from failures as from the great. Some great works are so perfect they are hermetic, and one cannot get inside the mechanics. The best poems to actually learn from are the near-greats, where one can see many good things, but there are a few weak spots that reveal the mechanics, in the flaws. I advocated mimicry in my recent essay on plagiarism. Soon, I will be doing a lengthy piece- before the holidays, likely, on artistic dishonesty vs. stupidity, and which is worse for the lay person.]
Return to Bylines