P O E T I C L I C E N S E
Notes on Poetry, Poems, and Poets
P O E T I C L I C E N S E
Notes on Poetry, Poems, and Poets
No.17 - October 2017
Rats Running up a Rope: Thoughts on Teaching Poetry
This month I’d like to return to and elaborate a bit on some ideas more briefly touched on in Poetic License #2, way back in July of last year.
One of the minor pleasures of being retired from teaching, for me, is never again having to stroll into a room of students in an Intro to Lit class only to be told by a goodly number of those fresh-faced young people that they either hated poetry, didn’t “get” it, or both. It nearly always happened, and was certainly a demoralizing way to begin a poetry unit. But rather than scolding them or administering a fatherly lecture (seldom good teaching strategies) I eventually learned a better way to reach those who were reachable. I would try and win them over by essentially getting out of the way, as much as possible, and letting Whitman or Langston Hughes win them over. I can’t say I always succeeded, but often enough Dickinson or Williams or someone else would, and the whole enterprise was more fun for all concerned.
What do I mean by letting such classic poets win them over? Well, one of my guiding principles was to let students experience, by carefully chosen examples, something of the incredible range and variety encompassed by the label poetry. For the truth is, I dislike a lot of poetry myself. No doubt you do also, even if you’re a poet. But you probably don’t dislike all poetry, do you? For a poet, that would be just weird.
The analogy with music has always made much sense to me. Have you ever encountered someone who hates music? Or claims not to get it? Now, plenty of people will tell you that they loathe country music, or opera, or just don’t get hip hop and John Cage—but that’s a different matter. I once worked with a woman who had bumper sticker on her car reading “If it ain’t country it ain’t music.” She overheard me playing some Bach in my office one time and remarked, “That sounds just like rats running up a rope.” By that point in my life I knew enough not to argue the unarguable (de gustibus non est disputandum), but her comment did strike me as pure poetry, and of course I relished her passion for music, if not for my own particular taste. (I also love country music, for the record!)
Just as it would seem absurd for someone to declare a hatred of all music, turns out most young people don’t, in fact, hate all poetry. Invariably, when you probe a bit, you discover that a student who claims to hate poetry mostly hates a certain kind of poem, or (unfortunately) hates the way it is usually taught in school. And I can report, from my many years in the classroom, that it is possible to overcome a unreflective distaste for the art of poetry.
Partly this happens, as I’ve suggested, simply by exposing them, in an enthusiastic and nonjudgmental context, to the incredible variety of the art form, from nursery rhymes and haiku and song lyrics all the way to more forbidding edifices like “The Waste Land.” My premise was always that poetry comes in many forms and moods, so surely everyone can find something to enjoy. You may not like Dickinson or Wordsworth, but if you’ve ever enjoyed singing along with the radio, or reading Dr. Seuss, you can’t say you don’t like poetry.
I know that this attitude strikes some teachers as unduly permissive, a way of dumbing down poetic instruction, but at the introductory level I always cared more for hooking students on the art than preaching the gospel of High Standards. Time enough in later classes to dig deeper into more challenging material and to familiarize them with the current canon. Thus, whenever I announced to a class that they would be writing a formal paper analyzing a poem, inevitably there would be some groans. Just as inevitably, when I mentioned that of course their favorite song lyrics counted as poems, groans would be replaced by relief and even enthusiasm.
Another key to my teaching of poetry had to do with emphasizing sound, which after all is everyone’s first experience not just of poetry, but of language itself. Before we learn how to read, we hear poetry in nursery rhymes, in lullabies, in the typical goo-goos and silly rhymes parents croon to their babies. All kids are natural poets in a sense, in that we all goof around with language as we learn it. We delight in nonsense, in rhythm and rhyme; and as we gain control of idiom, grammar, and vocabulary, it is the rare child who doesn’t sometimes experiment with the more performative aspects of language. And all of this begins before we can spell or read written language. It’s primal power and pleasure at the root of poetry, and no great poet I can think of, no matter how cerebral, lacks this basic delight in the play of sound.
Too often classroom instruction in poetry does not emphasize the pleasures of sound. I think this is because it’s harder to do than analyzing theme, imagery, psychology, symbol, metaphor, and the rest of the usual intellectual elements found in poetry. It’s hard because we have little practice doing it, whereas we are trained from the start of our schooling to discuss theme and the rest. And it’s hard because most of us lack a ready vocabulary for discussing things like tone, rhythm, voice, the interplay of vowels and consonants, and the rest of a poem’s soundscape. So teachers often gravitate toward the more familiar terrain of symbol and biographical or historical context.
Nothing wrong with such an approach, I hasten to add, and I never omitted such things from my teaching. I am not arguing against the intellectual appreciation of great literature. But to bypass consideration of sonic values entirely is to limit the discussion significantly. At its most extreme, it is akin to studying one of Beethoven’s symphonies without listening to it, just analyzing the intricacies of the score. The fact that in some classrooms the plays of Shakespeare have been studied without consideration of performance details is a symptom of the same limitation.
There is, I suspect, at least one other reason teachers often give short shrift to poetic soundplay. Not only do we lack the critical vocabulary for it, but in a real sense many of us are uncomfortable emphasizing pure pleasure, at least in an academic context. Yet a lot of poetry’s effect lies in the fact that it is, entirely apart from its meanings, just plain enjoyable. From childhood on we love wordplay, rhythm, and all the rest of what Donald Hall memorably calls “messing in the mud of language.” To discuss such matters in a schoolroom setting can seem unserious, even unseemly. Academic work is supposed to be, well, work—that is to say, serious, difficult, and intellectual rather than emotive or expressive.
In my own teaching career I came to feel that in order to give students a balanced introduction to the art of poetry I needed to devote more attention to the pleasures, not just the challenges, that poems provide. My strategies were various and ever-evolving, and included such things as a lot of reading aloud and listening to strong readers. I also initiated more explicit discussion of tone, rhythm, voice, and other elements of sonic play than I experienced in my own schooling. Sometimes we memorized and recited favorite poems. And, crucially, I made sure to include regular presentation of poems without much analysis at all, just appreciation.
All the above still strikes some as radical, I suppose. In our Puritan culture we’re supposed to work in class, not enjoy things. Yet I would argue that everyone’s first experience of and appreciation for poetry is rooted profoundly in pleasure. We’re hard-wired for it, in fact. And even in a college classroom, we’re poorer without it.
© 2017 David Graham