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The Journey to Poetry: Do We Teach Poetry for Format or Feeling?

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The following guest post, part of our “Teacher’s Corner” series, is by Rebecca Newland, a Fairfax County Public Schools Librarian and former Teacher in Residence at the Library of Congress.

"The Journey." By Elizabeth Shippen Green Elliott, 1903.
“The Journey.” By Elizabeth Shippen Green Elliott, 1903.

Have you ever heard groans around your classroom the day you announce the beginning of a poetry unit? Or complaints after sharing a poem such as “I don’t get it,” “It doesn’t make any sense,” and “Is this even English?” Those of us who love poetry are demoralized by these comments, wondering if the experience will be painful for everyone. Sadly, this has caused some teachers to avoid reading poetry with students.

Based on my experiences, I believe students are more receptive to literature I love, perhaps because my enthusiasm is contagious. However this does not always hold true, so I struggle with my poetry teaching philosophy. I ask myself two questions:

  1. Do students need to explicate poems, doing close readings and analyzing structure and meaning?
  2. Should we read poems and only discuss what they make us think and how they make us feel?

I believe there is need and space for both.

Poets such as Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, who pioneered free verse forms, show us that poetry does not have to follow a particular format to be expressive. The sonnet, haiku, and villanelle illustrate that poems can be both structured and meaningful. Some poets subvert formal structures for their own purposes, illustrating that form and content can be intertwined. I believe these are arguments for explication, enabling students to see the beauty in the format and language.

I also believe it is valuable for students to practice close reading of poetry to see the way poets use language to express meaning. Poetic devices such as metaphor, hyperbole, and imagery are tools in narrative as well as poetic writing. Explication is one way to investigate these uses and make connections to one’s own writing.

On the other side, should the first question we ask students after reading a poem be “How do you feel after reading this poem?” or “What you think the poem means?” instead of “Identify three poetic devices” or “What is the rhyme scheme?” After years of teaching poetry and making many mistakes that I fear caused my students to dislike poetry, I believe we should allow students time to internalize a poem and decide what it means to them before diving into an explication. In this way we honor the effect a poem has on individual students while also exploring the ways in which the poem is a poem instead of another form. The study of poetry in the classroom becomes a personal journey to understanding and appreciation enhanced by looking closely at structural and language elements.

This month’s post has been philosophical, posing more questions than suggestions. I welcome feedback, either agreement or dissension in the comments. What is your philosophy of sharing poetry with students?

Comments (4)

  1. Teaching and poetry does not need to be so mysterious.

    For Grades K-6, Reggie Routman has some “How To Teach Poetry” units.

    I love the national writing standards 1,2, and 3, because it reminds us that we can teach poetry in
    narrative, informative, and argumentative forms

    Teaching Free Verse often opens the doors to reluctant writers.

    Our favorite units ever have been teaching Argument Poetry about Ecology issues and Informative Poetry about Weather. Kids love it!

  2. Start with poetry they are familiar with (it’s all around us if you look for it)

    Allow them (the students) to work on some of this first, so they build up the confidence to tackle less familiar work

    Of course, your personal enthusiasm for a bit of poetry is contagious.

    As for ‘form or feeling’, you know the inclinations of the students you are working with. If they are of an analytic frame of mind, start them with the nuts and bolts then move on to the ‘feeling’

    If they are more inclined to respond to ‘feeling’ start them there and lead them on to the ‘nuts and bolts’, showing them how the ‘feeling’ is achieved through the structure


  3. I started with assuring them they already knew about poetry, from nursery rhymes to the lyrics of their favourite songs. Getting them in small groups to look at song lyrics together to decide which ones they liked and why led to lively discussion, making it easy to shift the small groups into looking into poetry in a broader context. Splitting class time then into some formal “teaching” and some time for groups to thumb through poetry books to choose poems for a group “anthology ” brought a lot of enthusiasm…

  4. The previous comments all have useful suggestions. The most important awareness for the teacher is to know her students and what will open the door to poetry. I have found asking for emotional responses the best “handle” as students often respond with passion. In turning to form and analysis, one device that has worked well for me in terms of demonstrating that form also carries feelings is to introduce students to the limerick form and than ask them to write a limerick that is tragic. So far all those who have tried have only produced “sick” limericks or satiric ones, etc. A good exercise. I’ve never been able to write a truly tragic limerick that I would want to read at someone’s memorial service, although I have a few friends who would enjoy one at their memorial service – if their disembodied spirit was hanging about!

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