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March 1, 1993
Vol. 50
No. 6

Trends: English / Teach Poetry? Indeed!

Instructional Strategies
If students groan at the thought of reading and studying poetry, it is probably because many English teachers hold poetry “too sacred,” and it is “revered a bit too much to be useful.” For other students, “the sad fact [is] that despite the best intentions, many teachers are handicapped by a lack of that certain dramatic flair needed to inspire a genuine appreciation of poetry. ”
The chief virtues of poetry are found in its conciseness and in its ability to plant verbal seeds that explode into multiple meanings and entice the mind at level after level as one's sophistication grows. Poetry can help students increase their cognitive sophistication, but the genre has to be taught with considerable sensitivity to what students will and will not accept at various stages of their development.
One of the best ways to teach poetry is to have students write it. Through such activities, students find “a way of crystallizing and publicly expressing private emotions that otherwise might be impossible for them to communicate.” Beyond this personal benefit, students gradually develop a working knowledge of how words achieve multiple effects and how they, as individuals, can control language, an ability that is the basis for success in any enterprise that demands high levels of reasoning and communication.
In his poetry workshops, David Johnson has students—mostly in ethnically diverse New Mexico—write about topics drawn from their cultures, a tactic that gives them an increased sense of who they are and how they fit into their cultural milieux. He helps them develop “a commitment to language,” nudging them into seeing “the world in terms of words.” His students “play with words, probing against the barriers of language, taking delight in puns and conceits, reading books and more books, and carrying a notebook.”
With such techniques, Johnson keeps students' poetry from turning into the super-subjective, mawkish effusions that it can become. Tsujimoto deals with this problem by suggesting that students initially write poetry in the third person. Using such techniques, both Johnson and Tsujimoto turn their students into astute observers of their surroundings. Students also build their vocabularies and their sensitivity to the meanings, sounds, and rhythms of language, writing skills that should carry over into all their writing.
When students begin to write poetry, it is essential that they encounter all sorts of poetry, and it is best if this poetry is read to them by someone other than the teacher. Wrigg recommends that students be given copies of poems and follow along with recordings of professional actors or the poets themselves.
Wrigg combines this activity with a dictionary exercise, having students scan each poem before they hear it for words they do not know. Then they look up these words and fix the definitions in their minds. Wrigg finds that hearing well-read poems greatly enhances his students' comprehension and makes them enthusiastic about the genre.
As one of the oldest forms humans have used to transmit their histories and cultures, poetry needs to be part of the heritage of as many students as possible. Students' enthusiasm should grow if the teacher's earliest approaches begin with the familiar and also engage students in producing poems. Because it is one of the thin cultural threads that binds all living people to the distant, pre-literary past, poetry offers all who read it a high-powered cultural telescope through which they can glimpse the beginnings of their civilization.
End Notes

1 L. M. Christiansen, (April 1991), “Poetry: Reinventing the Past, Rehearsing the Future,” English Journal 80: 27.

2 L. M. Christiansen, (April 1991), “Poetry: Reinventing the Past, Rehearsing the Future,” English Journal 80: 27.

3 J. I. Tsujimoto, (1988), Teaching Poetry Writing to Adolescents, Urbana, Ill.: National Council of Teachers of English, p. xiv.

4 D. M. Johnson, (1990), Word Weaving: A Creative Approach to Teaching and Writing Poetry. Urbana, Ill.: National Council of Teachers of English, p. 49.

5 Tsujimoto, 1988.

R. Baird Shuman has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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