eTeach logo

Teaching the Art of Poetry

by Baron Wormser and David Cappella

Introduction
Thinking About Your Classroom: Asking Questions
Thinking About a Poem


INTRODUCTION

Our approach to poetry is quite simple: poetry is an art and wants to be discussed as an art. Accordingly, the following sections focus on actual aspects of classroom practice in terms of dealing with poems as works of art. The notion of the poem as a work of art may seem to go without saying, but in our experience "art" is not a commonly used word in the English classroom. When students work with poems on a regular basis, rather than a segregated unit, we find that they quickly become accustomed to looking at how poems work as pieces of art. When they set out to write their own poems, it's plain that they have started to internalize aspects of the art.

We have chosen to focus on sorts of questions to ask students about poems and on the reading aloud/dictation process in the classroom. These are, to our minds, two crucial aspects of teaching poetry. Poor questions—"What does line five mean? "What did the poet intend to say here?"—turn off students to poetry as they practice reductionism or mind reading. Focused questions lead students into the heady experience of discovering how rich a poem can be and how many aspects there are to explore. Where our questions lead is not to a definitive "meaning" but to a profile of how the poem works as a piece of art. That profile, taking into account issues such as word choice, rhythm, sound, metaphor, etc., generates more than enough meaning to go around.

THINKING ABOUT YOUR CLASSROOM: ASKING QUESTIONS

Perhaps no topic is as vital for the classroom teacher who is teaching poetry as thinking about what sorts of questions to ask students. It is important to ask questions that offer definite entryways into a poem. Such entryways are real in terms of the art of the poem, but are not prescriptive or manipulative; they allow room for thoughtful response because they are not in search of the right answer. Listening to and reading a poem, after all, are experiences, and discussion of a poem and writing about a poem should reflect the quality of having and reflecting upon an experience rather than producing a right answer. Good questions create meaning without asking the students to go looking for meaning. If one trusts the art of the poem, then one is inevitably going to be led to meanings because purpose and coherence are crucial aspects of art, whether in the hands of Shakespeare, Anne Sexton, or Cole Porter.

Here are some entryway questions to initiate discussion and writing about poems. Remember that questions create contexts and that poems need contexts for young people to become comfortable with them. We teach, in part, to provide such contexts.

  1. Word choice: What word (or phrase) most intrigues your students or surprises them? Is there a word that is predictable to them? Are there any words they don't know? (Reading poems is an ongoing vocabulary builder because you have to know the meanings of all the words to discuss the poem.) Are there any words used in different senses from what they are accustomed to? What does one word have to do with another word: this could be similar parts of speech or words that seem synonymous or opposite or words that don't seem to go together. How does the word-by-word experience of reading the poem change as a reader proceeds through the poem? What words stand out when the poem is reread? Are there words that seem problematic? Do all the words have the same tone? To our minds, there is no better way to begin discussion of a poem than through the examination of actual words in the poem. Each word (and that can be "a" or "the" in a poem) can open doors into the poem and do it in an utterly non-threatening fashion. A poem is, after all, a series of word choices on the part of the poet. All those choices build the whole of the poem; poems are not hierarchical. By focusing on word choice as a way into the poem, students can talk about language. It is safe to say that all students need to talk about language.

  2. Rhythm: Ask students to describe in non-technical, subjective language what the rhythm of the poem feels like to them. Although the words will be emotional, they will be worth careful scrutiny. The word "hard" can tell us about the poem's rhythm as well as a more technical phrase can because it is based on experienced feeling. Rhythm is in our bodies and we want our students to respond to poetry physically – this includes movement, scatting, and drumming if that seems appropriate (and for some students it is). We pursue each word the students offer by asking them if they can tell us where they feel it in the poem and looking at that passage. How does rhythm create feeling? What rhythmic units do you perceive? Any discussion about meter and free verse that is rooted in physical perception—before those terms are on the table—is, in our experience, much more genuine because students have feelings about the rhythm to which they are pointing. Rhythm is a powerful factor in engaging the poem. It works at a sub-verbal level and offers a sense of the poem that taps into the pre-conscious. Rhythm moves us.

  3. Sound: Ask students what they noticed in terms of repeating vowel and consonant sounds. Are there dominant vowels and consonants in the poem? Is there end rhyme or slant rhyme or internal rhyme? Is there alliteration? Do sounds in the poem lull you or challenge you or entice you? What, based on these sorts of questions, does sound tell us about what is happening in the poem? As with rhythm, sound is a physical key to the poem's being, what we like to call "the life of the poem." As poets and teachers, we very much feel that poems are not inanimate but embody articulate energy. The more students apprehend that energy, the more they feel the work of art is not finished but awaits their responsiveness.

  4. Syntax: How are the sentences of the poem constructed? Are they simple, complex, or both? Are there fragments in the poem? Are sentence structures repeated? Is there a variety of sentence structures? How do the sentences begin and end? Are questions being asked? How do the sentences match up with the lines in which the poem is constructed? Poets think very carefully about sentences. Syntax rewards careful scrutiny.

  5. Line: Line is the basic unit of poems and is always important. The basic question is: How is line being used? Is line identical with regular rhythm? (In iambic pentameter, for instance, line is governed by rhythmic pattern.) Is line identical with syntactic phrases? Or do the line breaks work against syntactic expectations? Is line used the same way throughout the poem or does it vary? If the line is "free"—as in free verse—how is that freedom used? Is there one line that is particularly expressive? What physical feelings does line in the poem convey? A poem written with a word or two per line and a poem with twelve or so words per line give very different physical feelings.

  6. Stanzas: Is the poem in one or a number of stanzas? If it is one unit, why is it written that way? If the poem is in stanzas, are the stanzas of similar or various lengths? What pattern do the stanzas follow? Is a form being observed? Is a form being made up by the poet (known as "nonce form") to which the poet adheres throughout the poem? What effect do the stanzas have on you as you apprehend the poem? What happens in the white spaces between the stanzas? If you rewrite the poem in a different stanzaic structure, how does that affect the poem? (A what-if question is always worth asking about any formal aspect of a poem as it asks students to think like poets.)

  7. Punctuation: Is the poem punctuated? If so, how? If not, why not? Are there any differences in the poem's punctuation between punctuation for poetic purposes and prose punctuation? How does punctuation affect rhythm? Does the poet seem to have punctuation conventions of his or her own devising? Does the poet prefer a certain form of punctuation? Do you agree with the poet's punctuation?

  8. Metaphor: How much metaphor is in the poem? How is it used – simply or extensively? When does metaphor appear in the poem? If there is no metaphor in the poem, why not? What dimensions do the metaphors create in the poem? Is metaphor the emotional center of the poem? Why or why not?

  9. Coherence: How does the poem hang together as a work of language? Is there a narrative? Are aspects, such as images, repeated? What is the point of view? What is the setting? What information does the poem impart? Is information withheld? Is background information crucial to the poem? How does tone affect the poem's coherence? Is the tone steady or does it vary?

  10. Length: Why is the poem the length it is? If it were shorter, what would happen? If it were longer, where might it go? How does the poem end—with an action, an image, a statement, a metaphor, a question?

These questions apply as much to what students write as to what they hear and read. The questions are well nigh infinite, but they all focus students on very real issues about apprehending the poem and establishing contexts. With time, the students can start devising the questions that they think are most relevant given the poem. Teaching poetry is Socratic in that the "why" question is paramount. One can, of course, not pin down absolutely the reason why something is done a certain way but one can describe what the art creates and how the poem works. Students, we find, like to think like artists. They like to query poems and they come to feel comfortable doing it. They enjoy the feeling that responding to the poem is expansive rather than reductive.

THINKING ABOUT A POEM …

One of the crucial issues of classroom practice is how the teacher presents a poem to the students. As an oral art, poems want to be heard and at least one reading of the poem aloud (and usually more than one) is called for. Hearing a poem is not the same thing as reading a poem, particularly when students do not have the text in front of them. The poem disappears into silence but the passage of time is deeply equivocal and the listener becomes aware of how words and lines and whole poems can lodge themselves in the psyche. To hear poems is to allow them to fully work their magic. In terms of classroom culture, reading poems aloud daily—even if they are not further discussed—is critical to making students comfortable with poetry's presence. Students come to expect a poem and enjoy the uncertainty as to what the poem will be.

Orality and Literacy

One reason to make poetry central to the classroom is its orality. A strong case can be made that orality is central to literacy. If we don't hear words as words, then we lose track of words. Typically, young children are read to but older children are not read to with any frequency. A poem doesn't take long to read but the attention that is focused on listening is a real skill. Teachers talk about students' lack of listening skills. Reading poems aloud is a dynamic, enjoyable way to address that lack.

Reading Dickinson's Work Aloud

In our experience, one poet who benefits enormously from continuous reading aloud of her work is Emily Dickinson. Indeed, sometimes we take Dickinson a step further and dictate her poems, line by line. Consider #435:

Much Madness is Divinest Sense –
To a discerning Eye –
Much Sense – the starkest Madness –
'Tis the Majority
In this, as All, prevail –
Assent – and you are sane –
Demur – you're straightway dangerous –
And handled with a Chain –

Dickinson is a poet of constant perils, from line to line one never knows precisely what is going to happen. Poems enshrine the principle of surprise but Dickinson, to our minds, took surprise to an unsurpassed level of art. Thus, in dictating a Dickinson poem, line by line, we afford our students an opportunity to literally pause at each line and feel what has happened so far—what, for instance, are "Madness" and "Sense" doing in the same opening line? The pause allows students to think about what may be coming next. This allows them to experience Dickinson slowly, something that seems very important because a Dickinson poem does not want to be gulped down. An enormous amount is happening from line to line as Dickinson enacts often cosmic dramas in eight lines.

Taking Dictation from Emily Dickinson

Dictation allows students to almost literally take Dickinson's words into their bodies. They experience her art word by word and they don't know what the next word or line is going to be. A crucial, primal fact of poetry is curiosity: not knowing what the next line will be. Dictation puts students squarely in the experience of such curiosity. Sometimes we query our students as to what their expectations are about the next line. This displays literacy and imaginative skills in the truest sense—making predictions and seeing how they play out. "What word," we ask, "is going to rhyme with 'sane' in the final line?" This is fun, but it is stimulating also, as students have to really attend to the poem and think about where Dickinson may be going.

Since her poems tend to be short and because she wrote so many of them, Dickinson is an exemplar of how a "difficult" poet can become a lot less intimidating through frequent contact. Obviously, some of Dickinson's poems are more perplexing than others, but once students come to understand how the dictation process works they are open to pondering whatever poem they are given to ponder. They do not see flags go up that signal "This is a difficult poem." After all, a Dickinson poem isn't long, so the physical experience of writing down the poem is not exhausting. Instead it is stimulating, as students become, in a sense, authors themselves, as they write her words down themselves for their own use. We always tell our students about the tradition of the commonplace book in which people write down favorite poems. We sometimes find out that one of our students already is doing this.

"A Living Culture of Poetry in the Classroom"

Reading aloud and dictation create a living culture of poetry in the classroom. Typically we have students write down poems in a notebook (or on their laptops if such amenities are available) and they keep the poems for the year in that notebook. Sometimes they may memorize a poem, sometimes they may use the poems to compare with other poems, sometimes the poems may be sources for longer papers, sometimes the poem may act as a model for a poem the student will write. The issue is continuity and the poetry journal (as we call it) provides that continuity. The poems that students write go into the journal too; there is no segregation between their own poems and other poems. Poets learn their art from other poems and the journal shows this graphically.

We grade dictations and, accordingly, ask our students to turn in their poetry journals on a regular basis. This may seem surprising given that we are dictating every word and mark of punctuation and we are taking care to make sure there are no confusions. Alas, students are not trained to be very good listeners and they often are inattentive. They think they are going to get an automatic "A" on their dictation, but then they see that a word has been misspelled or left out, or a piece of punctuation has been misplaced and they start to become better listeners. Indeed, they become such good listeners that they ask us questions as we dictate the poems: Why is there a comma there? How come the poet broke the line there? Why doesn't the stanza just continue the way it is?

The "Intense Physicality of Poetry"

Poems live in our mouths; the physical presence is right there in the present moment. It isn't a dusty shard of the past—it lives in human mouths and ears and in our bodies. By reading poems aloud and hearing those poems, students experience the intense physicality of poetry.

No human chest and voice box and diaphragm and tongue and there are no poems. For all the talk about poems, poetry is physical before it is intellectual. When the students go a step further and write the poems down, they take possession of them in a personal way. They mimic the poet who once upon a time wrote the words down him or her self. We want them to feel that any poet, Emily Dickinson very much included, can become "their" poet.