Celebrating Poetry

Gary, our guest blogger, offers a look at a new
teacher who wonders if he can teach poetry in a
meaningful way.
Bridging English, ch. 6 

               Poetry should surprise us “like cold water or a kiss” – Ntozake Shange (1978, p.57)


I have been up literally all night preparing for this class.  I love poetry and pray that my students will also.  As I arrive in my classroom, I place my bust of William Shakespeare on my desk and can almost feel it; his presence helps me arrive at a comfortable mindset.  As the students come in the classroom, they take their seats and turn their gaze to me.  My confidence vaporizes as I realize I am still questioning my preparation.  Have I prepared for this correctly?  Only time will tell.  

I reflect on my preparation.  I think back on my class at Old Dominion University and the class I took on developing teaching strategies.  I have kept the textbook and use it often.  I remember that in chapter 6 of Bridging English we were introduced to the methods of teaching poetry.  I loved how it broke down the concepts into four easy approaches to teaching poetry: Finding Poetry, Forging Poetry, Discerning Poetry, and Probing Poetry.
          Finding Poetry is like finding hidden treasure.  The treasure can be found in locations common to our everyday lives: nonliterary prose, music, advertising, bumper stickers, and even less expected places.  My favorite example of this would have fallen into the category of nonliterary prose.  The poem “Parents” by Julius Lester was found in the February 7, 1976 New York Times.  In the article, a young lady was told by her parents to shoot her dog.  After her dad gives her a gun, she turns it on herself and commits suicide.  The article ends by stating that the only crime the parents could be charged with was cruelty to animals.  Lester found the story and turned it into poetry.  He did not have to come up with the concept or details, those were found.


Linda failed to return home from a dance Friday night.
On Saturday
she admitted she had spent the night
with an Air Force Lieutenant.
The Aults decided on a punishment
that would “wake Linda up.”
They ordered her
to shoot the dog
she had owned about two years.
On Sunday,
the Aults and
Linda took the dog into the desert
near their home.
had the girl
dig a shallow grave.
Mrs. Ault
grasped the dog between her hands and
Mr. Ault
his daughter
a .22 caliber pistol
and told her
to shoot the dog.
the girl
put the pistol
to her right temple
and shot herself.
The police said
there were no charges
that could be filed
against the parents
except possibly
- Julius Lester

          Forging Poetry is what most teachers would consider the normal and formal way of writing poetry. There are a number of approaches we can use in forging poetry. We can use templates to guide the creative process. We can use fixed forms of poetry like limericks, Haikus and sonnets. We can use open forms like found poetry and concrete poetry. Finally, we can use the wild card or magnetic poetry concept. I personally remember being introduced to poetry by use of the haiku. This easy to remember format made poets out of all of us.

         Discerning Poetry is explained as basically understanding a poem while using strategies that are the opposite of a close reading. We would use the strategies of definition, choice, personal response, enactment, visualization, and synthesis. My favorite is the strategy of reader response where the reader explains what the poem means to them. It takes what was possibly written many years ago and lets my students make it personal. I love it when my students are able to connect to classic poetry.

        Probing Poetry is the idea that poetry needs to be understood to be effective. The approaches discussed by the textbook include adolescent readers, selecting poems, listening to poems, discussing poems and poets talk. I love the poet talk concept where we get to know what the poet really meant by what he wrote.

As my thoughts of what I learned back at college come back to me, I realize that I have prepared well for my class and my confidence returns. I realize that with the tools I have developed, my students are going to love poetry. I know which methods I will use. But as I reach out to you readers out there I have to ask you, which method of teaching poetry makes the most sense to you? I guess I would also ask you, how do you plan to incorporate the teaching of poetry in your classes? Will it be a poetry unit or will you integrate it into your whole year?

-e. e. cummings