Why Teaching Poetry is so Important

The article below by Andrew Simmons was published in The Atlantic on April 8, 2014. It’s linked here below verbatim.

_________________________________________________

The oft-neglected literary form can help students learn in ways that prose can’t.

 

16 years after enjoying a high school literary education rich in poetry, I am a literature teacher who barely teaches it. So far this year, my 12th grade literature students have read nearly 200,000 words for my class. Poems have accounted for no more than 100.

This is a shame—not just because poetry is important to teach, but also because poetry is important for the teaching of writing and reading.

High school poetry suffers from an image problem. Think of Dead Poet’s Society‘s scenes of red-cheeked lads standing on desks and reciting verse, or of dowdy Dickinson imitators mooning on park benches, filling up journals with noxious chapbook fodder. There’s also the tired lessons about iambic pentameter and teachers wringing interpretations from cryptic stanzas, their students bewildered and chuckling.

Reading poetry is impractical, even frivolous. High school poets are antisocial and effete.

I have always rejected these clichéd mischaracterizations born of ignorance, bad movies, and uninspired teaching. Yet I haven’t been stirred to fill my lessons with Pound and Eliot as my 11th grade teacher did. I loved poetry in high school. I wrote it. I read it. Today, I slip scripture into an analysis of The Day of the Locust. A Nikki Giovanni piece appears in The Bluest Eye unit. Poetry has become an afterthought, a supplement, not something to study on its own.

poetry

In an education landscape that dramatically deemphasizes creative expression in favor of expository writing and prioritizes the analysis of non-literary texts, high school literature teachers have to negotiate between their preferences and the way the wind is blowing. That sometimes means sacrifice, and poetry is often the first head to roll.

Yet poetry enables teachers to teach their students how to write, read, and understand any text.

Poetry can give students a healthy outlet for surging emotions.

Reading original poetry aloud in class can foster trust and empathy in the classroom community, while also emphasizing speaking and listening skills that are often neglected in high school literature classes.

Students who don’t like writing essays may like poetry, with its dearth of fixed rules and its kinship with rap. For these students, poetry can become a gateway to other forms of writing. It can help teach skills that come in handy with other kinds of writing—like precise, economical diction, for example. When Carl Sandburg writes, “The fog comes/on little cat feet,” in just six words, he endows a natural phenomenon with character, a pace, and a spirit.

All forms of writing benefits from the powerful and concise phrases found in poems.

I have used cut-up poetry (a variation on the sort “popularized” by William Burroughs and Brion Gysin) to teach 9th grade students, most of whom learned English as a second language, about grammar and literary devices. They made collages after slicing up dozens of “sources,” identifying the adjectives and adverbs, utilizing parallel structure, alliteration, assonance, and other figures of speech. Short poems make a complete textual analysis more manageable for English language learners. When teaching students to read and evaluate every single word of a text, it makes sense to demonstrate the practice with a brief poem—like Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool.”

Students can learn how to utilize grammar in their own writing by studying how poets do—and do not—abide by traditional writing rules in their work. Poetry can teach writing and grammar conventions by showing what happens when poets strip them away or pervert them for effect. Dickinson often capitalizes common nouns and uses dashes instead of commas to note sudden shifts in focus. Agee uses colons to create dramatic, speech-like pauses. Cummings of course rebels completely. He usually eschews capitalization in his proto-text message poetry, wrapping frequent asides in parentheses and leaving last lines dangling on their pages, period-less. In “next to of course god america i,” Cummings strings together, in the first 13 lines, a cavalcade of jingoistic catch-phrases a politician might utter, and the lack of punctuation slowing down and organizing the assault accentuates their unintelligibility and banality and heightens the satire. The abuse of conventions helps make the point. In class, it can help a teacher explain the exhausting effect of run-on sentences—or illustrate how clichés weaken an argument.

maya2

Yet, despite all of the benefits poetry brings to the classroom, I have been hesitant to use poems as a mere tool for teaching grammar conventions. Even the in-class disembowelment of a poem’s meaning can diminish the personal, even transcendent, experience of reading a poem. Billy Collins characterizes the latter as a “deadening” act that obscures the poem beneath the puffed-up importance of its interpretation. In his poem “Introduction to Poetry,” he writes:  “all they want to do is tie the poem to a chair with rope/and torture a confession out of it./They begin beating it with a hose/to find out what it really means.”

The point of reading a poem is not to try to “solve” it. Still, that quantifiable process of demystification is precisely what teachers are encouraged to teach students, often in lieu of curating a powerful experience through literature. The literature itself becomes secondary, boiled down to its Cliff’s Notes demi-glace. I haven’t wanted to risk that with the poems that enchanted me in my youth.

Teachers should produce literature lovers as well as keen critics, striking a balance between teaching writing, grammar, and analytical strategies and then also helping students to see that,

…literature should be mystifying.

It should resist easy interpretation and beg for return visits. Poetry serves this purpose perfectly. I am confident my 12th graders know how to write essays. I know they can mine a text for subtle messages. But I worry sometimes if they’ve learned this lesson. In May, a month before they graduate, I may read some poetry with my seniors—to drive home that and nothing more.

________________________________________________

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

  • Andrew Simmons is a writer, teacher, and musician based in California. He has written for The New York TimesSlate, and The Believer.

 

Advertisements

Infinite Expansion of Imagination

This marvellous TEDx talk, given by Jeff Bollow recently in Melbourne, gives riveting insight into why sharing ideas is invaluable.

_____________________________________

His account of the infinite possibilities of imagination shared and compounded, gives exciting impetus to the work of writers, screenwriters, playwrights and bloggers worldwide.

Share your ideas without reserve!

 

Ode to a Nightingale

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pain
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
 –//–
 ode 5
 –//–
So starts John Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale.” Published in 1819 it is another of the great works of the Romantic era. It is full of Romantic adoration of nature, along with nostalgia, melancholy about the transience of life, mortality and loss.
 ode 6
Above all these, Keats elevated the artist’s vision of Beauty coining what is known as “negative capability” – the ability of one to exist without truly knowing.
 –//–
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thine happiness,—
That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease.
–//–

 

ode 3

The songbird is a happy nightingale, a voice that compels the narrator to join with in and forget the sorrows of the world. However,  Keats had recently suffered the loss of his brother. The song’s conclusion represents the result of trying to escape into the realm of fantasy.

Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs,
Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.
–//–

 

ode 4
Away! away! for I will fly to thee,
Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
But on the viewless wings of Poesy,
Though the dull brain perplexes and retards:
Already with thee! tender is the night,
And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,
Cluster’d around by all her starry Fays;
But here there is no light,
Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown
Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.
–//–

The nightingale described within the poem experiences a type of death but does not actually die. Instead, the songbird is capable of living through its song, which is a fate that humans cannot expect.

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!
Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—
To thy high requiem become a sod.

 –//–

ode 1

 

Keats imagines the loss of the physical world and sees himself dead—as a “sod” over which the nightingale sings. The contrast between the immortal nightingale and mortal man, sitting in his garden, is made all the more acute by his imagination.

Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
The same that oft-times hath
Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.
–//–

ode 7

Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
To toll me back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is fam’d to do, deceiving elf.
Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hill-side; and now ’tis buried deep
In the next valley-glades:
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?
–//–
ode 8

The poem ends with an acceptance that pleasure cannot last and that death is an inevitable part of life. To Keats there is something eternal in the contemplation of Beauty alone.

The poem celebrates what Keats described in a letter to his brothers as “negative capability.

….that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason ……… with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.

How to create a fictional world

This blog often questions “What makes a good story?” and “Why can some stories absolutely entrance, bewtich and transform us?”

How can human-made squiggles on a page, reflect lights into our eyes, that sends signals to our brains, that we logically and emotionally decode as complex narratives, that move us to fight, cry, sing and think, that are strong enough to hold up a world that is completely invented by the author, but also to change the readers perspective on the real world that resumes only when the final squiggle is reached ?

This short video explains how writers weave their magic. Writers can paint fantastical fictional worlds with intricate rules, maps, lineages, languages, cultures, universes, alternate universes within universes.

_________________

The key is believability. If your characters understand their world and its rules your readers will – and will inhabit it with them. Taking the fictional world utterly seriously is the first step to architecting the narrative that follows.

The truth is your imagination and a willingness to figuratively live in your own world are all you need to get started writing a novel.

fictional world 2

O, For a Muse of Fire

Henry V,

Act I, Scene I. Prologue: Enter Chorus

Chorus:

O, for a Muse of fire, that would ascend

The brightest heaven of invention,

A kingdom for a stage, princes to act

And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!

So starts the prologue to Shakespeare’s history, Henry V. In metanarrative the chorus goes on to call attention to the fact that this is but a company of actors, upon wooden boards, within a humble “cockpit” of a theatre, conjuring the magnificent histories of England and the battles of France and England at Agincourt.

shakespeare

…………… But pardon, and gentles all,

The flat unraised spirits that have dared

On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth

So great an object: can this cockpit hold

The vasty fields of France? or may we cram

Within this wooden O the very casques

That did affright the air at Agincourt?

The audience is asked to populate, through their imaginings, the vast armies,  cavalries of horsemen in the battle field, one or two actors transformed into hundreds of characters, and within a few hours, the happenings of years of historical events, all within the “narrow girdle of these walls”

the globe

O, pardon! since a crooked figure may

Attest in little place a million;

And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,

On your imaginary forces work.

Suppose within the girdle of these walls

………

Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;

Into a thousand parts divide one man,

And make imaginary puissance;

………

For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,

Carry them here and there; jumping o’er times,

Turning the accomplishment of many years

Into an hour-glass: for the which supply,

Admit me Chorus to this history;

Who prologue-like your humble patience pray,

Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.

For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,” the chorus speaks to the audience, removing the veil of pretence between the two, breaking the “fourth wall”. The adult audience is being asked to enter into the play, to become a part of it by supplying the props, sets, scenery and extraneous cast. The audience is actively PLAY-ing.

shakespearean acting

This holidays I am at home with three neices, between 2 years and 8 years of age. I see them move between games and conversation, pausing casually to nibble imaginatively on a wooden piece of cake painted brightly. One sits dialoguing with her dolls,  the other role playing with costumes. Their pace is constant, like tightly wound tops they move without ceasing,  activity after activity, sometimes absorbed, sometimes quarrelsome. They are a marvel of imaginative involvement, mostly content unless tired or hungry.

All the time I see them learning. Learning to hit a ping pong ball for the first time, swinging and missing, and slowing learning coordination.  When restrained too long amidst adult conversation they grow restless and sulky, wanting desperately to keep on playing. Play, play, they want to play. The little knowledge I have of early education is that play is essential to childhood learning. It is a marvel of nature that children are compelled to play, to imagine and to explore. Difficult things are learned daily, a fearful world is explored and mysterious customs of the adult world, far beyond comprehension absorbed by imitation.

I reflect on the year of learning I have experienced – I would describe it “painful”, marked by “failure”, “hard work” at times “discouraging” and mostly “tiring.” When did we lose our sense of PLAY when learning new and difficult things? Why is not every new endeavour covered all around by imagination and role playing?

Furthermore I view a world troubled by international events, politics, religion, commerce, power. How can we as adults enter the “cockpit” of the Globe Theatre, and learn the messy business of life from a company of rag-tag actors and artisans? How can we thump each other with wooden swords, and die deaths from vials of poisons, bleed with ribboned blood and then rise at the end to bow and exit stage left? How can we play out our conflicts and not hurt each other deeply

How can our life and learning by led by “a muse of fire”?