For many years I had wrestled with teaching poetry. I love poetry, especially reading it aloud and occasionally writing it but I hated teaching it. A wise teacher once told me not to teach poetry unless I enjoyed it; teaching poetry should be left to those who liked it so their students would catch their enthusiasm.
My first problem was that I have great difficulty with metre and stress. Even when I taught English as a Second Language, I struggled with that aspect of the oral lessons. I would teach the theory of a stress-timed language and find a student in the class who not only grasped the theory but could also easily practise it. She would then lead the class in identifying the stressed words and creating the rhythm for the sentences.
Marking Creative Work
The second problem and much the greater was that I have a horror of marking creative work; how could I presume to judge it? And how fair was it to judge students who lacked the talent? How could I give a mark that meant anything? How I hated the meaningless stuff forced into rhyme schemes; it was artificial and unlovely. The boys’ work was often the worst of the lot; they often seemed emotionally constipated and all their writing focussed on facts and action. The rare emotion in their work was anger, and that was expressed through violence.
Getting around My Problems
I had circumvented the problem by teaching my students how to read poetry aloud, reading my own favourites to them and restricting our study of poetry to playing with different forms. I excluded any form that I knew I couldn’t do myself so sonnets were out, but haiku and senryu were in. Students chose their best work and handed it in with all their drafts so I had a sense of the amount of thought that went into their work. It was acceptable but somehow I never felt that I had been able to give them sense of what poetry was about.
Depression as a Positive
Then I became severely depressed. I was unable to plan or mark work but I was encouraged by my administration to continue to come in to teach anyway. They argued that I needed to be with my students and my students needed me; we would work out the issues of marking somehow. As I had taught that grade level before I had enough ideas on file to finesse my way through most days and my volunteer loyally did everything she could to help me out.
One day I found myself with a gap between units that needed to be filled. We had done quite a bit of work on writing fiction and non-fiction with a strong emphasis on the process of editing and revising work. I had been thinking about a course my mother, an administrator, had taken on good writing where the instructor had pushed the students to take out every unnecessary word. I was wondering about doing a similar exercise but I sensed that my students had had enough of editing for a while. They needed a change of pace.
What is poetry?
I thought about poetry; I had been writing some myself for the first time in thirty years. It was a safety valve for the anguish I was feeling. I couldn’t face the meaningless junk the kids would write nor analysing other peoples’ work out of its beauty. Then I realised that my own poetry had arisen from my pain and that as I wrote I had worked to put on paper a precise and concise picture of my own emotions. I had an idea.
Feeling what another feels
I asked my students to clear their desks of all but paper and a pen. Then I reminded them of two dreadful instances that had been in the news recently, a mass killing in the local transit building and the circumstances in Bosnia. The papers had been full of details from the transit killings. We had heard about the long wait of families by their telephones before they knew if a member had been killed. We knew about the man crouched in a closet hiding from the killer while a colleague lay dead nearby. We knew something of the pain that had driven the killer.
I talked about both episodes, drawing their attention to the different viewpoints of the people involved, such as the family waiting by the phone, a manager wondering if he could have handled things better or a police officer waiting for instructions and wondering what they would be. I asked them to choose one incident, one viewpoint and one point in time during or after the incident and write a paragraph about it from that viewpoint but only dealing with the emotions. “How is that person feeling at that point? What are his or her thoughts? Write them down, don’t worry about grammar or spelling or style much but focus on the best words and ways to express the emotions. Let your ideas flow. Don’t count sentences or lines or watch the clock. Don’t talk. Double-space your writing.”
I let them write for ten or fifteen minutes. They had listened seriously and followed my instructions carefully; I think they enjoyed the change and since evaluation hadn’t been mentioned, they worked without concern for marks or my opinion. When I could see that the flow was drying up, I stopped them.
Poetry by decimation
“Now, count the words on your page.” They looked at me as if I was crazy but we had been together long enough that they trusted me. They counted. “Divide by ten.” Now they were sure I was nuts but hey, it beat writing essays. “Go through the page and take out at least that many words; they must be the least necessary words for expressing the feelings you have written about.” Silently, they followed my instructions. “Now do it again.” Some protests. “Trust me. If you have to reorganise a sentence or phrase to do it, that’s ok.” The heads bent to the task, some of them shaking. I can’t remember if I repeated the instructions; I stopped when I sensed they had gone as far as they could go.
“Now organise what you have left so it looks like a poem. Hand it in.” It was the best poetry written by twelve-year-olds I had ever read. Even the boys who focussed on the violence or anger seemed to have got inside their person’s head and somehow expressed the fear or anguish or despair that underlay the violence. They all got A’s. When I returned them I asked for volunteers to read their work. The parent volunteer in my classroom was as moved as I was.
Why it worked
- the students were focussed on feelings in the moment; it helped that these were recent events that had an impact on them.
- the initial process was flow, uncritical process
- decimation allowed the student to determine what the useless words were and edit for syle and meaning
- it was only at the end that the students focussed on their work as poetry
Had I been well I would have used that as a jumping off point for a unit on poetry, but I wasn’t. I could only praise them and bask in the moment of discovery we had shared, discovering what poetry is about.
Coming Soon: A poetry unit I developed later, based on this.
- Learning to Love Teaching Poetry (teachingideasoutsidethebox.wordpress.com)
- Sharing My Emotional Poetry (inkwellsplatters.wordpress.com)
- Poetry on the Brink: Reinventing the Lyric (3quarksdaily.com)
- Poetry ebook, “A House With A Broken Heart” is free (ahousewithabrokenheart.wordpress.com)