The Teaching of Poetry
When we ask our college students about their in-school experiences with poetry, on the negative side they tell us about teachers who did not like poetry themselves and so flooded lessons with technical terms or turned poems into guessing games that made students feel stupid. On the positive side, they tell us about teachers who seemed to take genuine pleasure in poems and shared them with students as a gift. Their actions match the advice of Richard W. Beach and James D. Marshall:
- Never teach a poem you don't like.
- Teach poems that you're not certain you understand. Teach poems about which you may have some real doubt.
- Teach poems that are new to you as well as your store of "old standards."
- Become a daily reader of poems, a habitue of used bookstores, a scavenger of old New Yorkers and other magazines that contain poetry.
- Give students the freedom to dislike great poetry.6
Books about teaching literature inevitably give suggestions on teaching this or that genre, but readers can almost palpably sense the urgency of suggestions for teaching poetry. Recommended books include Louise Rosenblatt's seminal The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work; Patrick Dias and Michael Hayhoe's Developing Response to Poetry; and Stephen Dunning's Teaching Literature to Adolescents: Poetry. With the help of these books and poems gleaned from teachers' reading, any teacher can soon have several hundred poems worth reading and using in class. Here we offer some other suggestions.
- Avoid units on poetry. Poems deserve to be used frequently but not en masse. It is better to use poems in thematic units where they can be tied in with short stories or drama.
- Drop a funny poem-or a monster poem-into class just for the fun of it.
- Let students, at least occasionally, help choose the poems that a class will study.
- Remember that poetry takes time and plan accordingly. This is not to see how many poems you can knock off in one class, but to allow students to hear poems again and again and to talk about them. We saw one teacher who obviously hated poetry set a record by killing thirty-six Emily Dickinson poems in less than one class period. It takes time to recognize kinship with a poet, to find someone who expresses a feeling or makes an observation that the reader has come close to but has not quite been able to put into words.
- Surround your students with as many beautifully designed poetry books as you can borrow from libraries, scrounge from friends and neighbors, or buy.
Even though the age range of those who can read and enjoy a particular poem is usually much wider than for prose, there is still a subtle dividing line between children's and young adult books. While teenagers may be amused by the humorous poetry of Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky, they are likely to feel slightly insulted if offered serious children's poetry. Many young adults are ready to read and enjoy the same poetry that educated adults enjoy, especially if teachers smooth the way by first providing access to poets whose allusions they are likely to understand and then gradually leading them into poetry representing cultures and times different from their own. It may help to ease students into appreciating the work of some poets by first offering various kinds of biographical reading, as with Neil Baldwin's To All Gentleness: William Carlos Williams, The Doctor-Poet; Jean Gould's American Women Poets: Pioneers of Modern Poetry; or Paul Janeczko's Poetspeak: In Their Work, About Their Work. In a similar way, someone who has read Alice Walker's The Color Purple will probably be ready to appreciate the poems in her Good Night, Willie Lee, I'll See You in the Morning: Poems. Readers of Ray Bradbury's science fiction may want to read his fifty-plus poems in When Elephants Last in the Dooryard Bloomed. Students who have read Maya Angelou's autobiographical I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings will probably be interested in her poetry.
One of the delights and challenges of working with modern poetry is that students (and teachers) have no source to turn to for determining the meaning or worth of the poems. Comments on a T. S. Eliot poem are easy to come by, and a glance at criticism tells us whether this poem is major Eliot or minor Eliot. We hardly need to read the poem to comment on it, to determine its place in the canon, or to chase down all those wonderful symbols and allusions. With a modern poem, teachers and students must fall back on honest responses to the poem. Years ago, Luella Cook, one of the great people in English education, warned teachers about the dishonesty of canned responses to literature, and although she referred to students alone, her warning might be extended to teachers as well.
The problem of teaching literature realistically faced, then, becomes one of widening the range of responses to literature, of guiding reading experience so that reaction to books will be vivid, sharp, compelling, provocative. The great tragedy of the English classroom is not that students may have the "wrong" reactions-that is, veer from accepted judgment—but that they will have no original reaction at all, or only the most obvious ones, or that they will mimic the accepted evaluations of criticism.7
6. Richard W. Beach and James D. Marshall, Teaching Literature in the Secondary School (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1991), p. 384.
7. Luella B. Cook, "Reading for Experience," English Journal 2.5 (April 1936): 280.
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