Yes, poetry can matter.
For poems are not, as people think, simply emotions (one has emotions early enough)-they are experiences.
Rainer Maria Rilke
Poetry scares teachers – how do we teach it – and more problematic for instructors, how do we interpret and or grade it? Ought we beat it with a hose as Billy Collins laments, “…tie the poem to a chair with rope and torture a confession out of it.” Or should we just let it exist floating in the air like a balloon attached to our heart by a strand of silk, ephemeral and too precious to critique?
I think the above Rilke line voices a lot of our dilemma as poetry instructors, both writing and reading. Ask any audience “What is poetry good for?” and invariably the answer returns, “Expressing feelings.” Our ever-quotable German friend tries to set us straight – he is telling us that poetry captures an instant; Sara Holbrook and I like to say that poems are snapshots – they document a moment. Sure emotions may tag along as passengers, but ultimately a poem is a vehicle transporting experience and understanding from writer to reader.
Poetry does this through language precise and concise and as well as literary device. We concentrate our data when we write poetry; we unpack and expand this information when we read it – reconstituting meaning by mixing in our background knowledge and prior understanding. A poem is a condensed transaction between writer and reader – this is what makes it such a great assessment tool.
We can employ poetic writing in the classroom just as we do any other text type we ask our students to write to evidence understanding. When we understand poetry to be the documentation of an experience – even if that experience is reading about photosynthesis or the constitutional convention – we take it out of the fine china cabinet and set it on our everyday table.
Poetry prioritizes information and presents it in bite size portions. Using poetry and its conventions as a regular means of written expression in the classroom enhances the understanding of these conventions. It’s also a lot shorter than a five-paragraph essay.
This is why student written poetry about their studies is a perfect formative assessment. The teacher sees what their students think are the most important parts of what they are learning and they see it in concentrated form. The use of poetic devices such as similes or repetition also invites the students to think about their lessons more deeply because it requires them to rank and relate their learning to prior knowledge. There is no reason that students at all levels should not be writing poetry. Extra bonus – it’s usually short, so instead of a stack of two page essays on The Lord of the Flies, teachers have a short stack of eight line poems conveying the same information.
If students are accustomed to writing using poetic devices, they will be much more adept at identifying these same devices when reading and deconstructing poetry presented to them. They will also have the deeper experience and confidence with language needed in order to interpret and bring meaning to the text. Readers will empathize with the use of figurative language, word choice and tone having wrestled with these parts in their own writing. They will also appreciate the pieces presented to them as practitioners rather than spectators.
Of course, once you’ve created a classroom full of poets, they may not politely stick to the answers in the back of the book when interpreting the work before them. This is a good thing, and also a subject fit for another post. In the meantime I hope you enjoy this poem of mine, which was inspired by a rather spirited class of 8th grade writers I was working with in master teacher Brian Arleth’s class at Singapore American School.
White strips of rags
Dangle and wave attached to the tips of bamboo poles
Fifteen feet long
One grasped in each sinewy hand
Of the Vietnamese duck man
As he steers this hungry flock
From one rice paddy to the next
Eating the insects that would wish
To snack on
Fresh green shoots
Quacking foul and boisterous as
Traffic in a Hanoi roundabout
The face of a clock
Reading ten minutes to three
His arms soaring forward
As if outstretched wings
The birds nested in the center
Of the walking flock are of little concern
To the leather weathered skinned duck man
It is the outliers that he eyes
From beneath his straw non la
Those few who would rather snap at the muslin scraps
Than attend to the task at hand
Just as one is gently tapped back in at the right
Another attempts to escape to the left
Dreaming of pastures not within the constrictions
Of this day’s curriculum
And every good tender of livestock knows
One never plays favorites
How can he help but admire
Those who push at the edges
Who make him work
For more ideas for teaching poetry, read High-Impact Writing Clinics: 20 Projectable Lessons for Building Literacy Across Content Areas.