For many students, poetry may seem almost like a foreign language or a bunch of mathematical or scientific formulas still yet to be understood. Teachers talk about, and textbooks define, a range of poetic techniques and perspectives about poetry. Poems can be analyzed and their linguistic and semantic features identified. Even a rudimentary examination of English and literacy textbooks will bear out my point that the content is analytical in focus and the literacy practices are about decoding, not about deep understanding and emotional connection with poems. This academic discussion and dispassionate language-based analysis can leave students alienated and can lead to negative impressions of the place of poetry in the experience of students.
If this is the case, then what is a pedagogy, or a set of pedagogical principles, that will facilitate student engagement with poetry? What will shift the focus of teacher away from cold and distant analysis to warm and embracing understanding? What is a pedagogy of joyful engagement with poetry?
The problem is that the core of poetry is experience, not technique. Poems are experienced, savored and loved; poems can evoke emotions and create variable interpretations and disparate reactions and opinions. That is what they are supposed to do, and by writing this I am not devaluing the place of analysis in the teaching of poetry.
I believe this undue focus on analysts, rather than emotional engagement, has been the central pedagogical issue with teaching poetry over the last 100 years. All those awful poetry anthologies that distanced poetry from experience and enjoyment have been a part of the problem, and even many English and literacy educators might admit their reluctance with teaching poetry.
However, I want to reinvent poetry teaching; I, as a practicing poet and educator, want to reposition it back where it belongs. I want to see it juxtaposed with the deepest core of our humanity. Poems are containers of what we are and explore the parts of what we experience as human beings. I believe that when students see this link with their intimate experience, poetry can come alive for them, and engagement with poetry, and learning through poetry, will follow.
To that end, in studying poetry, it is also important to write it, even if the first attempts are daunting or do not seem to fit the category of poetry as a form of literature that belongs in those pretentious anthologies and poetry textbooks. The act of writing is about embodiment; and in embodiment lies a deep learning, a visceral experience that is all too absent in contemporary schooling.
Traditionally, going back even to Classical times, poetry contained the existential stories, traditions and lore of a community and a culture; poetry carried history. Poems were written and passed down, and they were core to understanding and exploring one’s place in society, in culture and in the universe.
You see that centrality even today in the shift of poetry to music and musical lyrics, and how poetry reflects the thoughts and feelings of a sub-culture, such as the Hip-Hop community. Literacy teachers, I believe, need to get back that that deep existential function that poetry once had (had for thousands of years) and restore what once was and still can be again. We need to ask ourselves as literacy educators this question: what is the function of poetry in the lives of students? How is this function different to other genres of literature or other forms of writing, including digital and multi-modal forms of communication? What are the possibilities?
How is this reorientation and rethinking of pedagogy for poetry teaching possible, though? How can poetry teaching be revitalized and how can students’ enjoyment and appreciation of poetry be fostered or enhanced in the classroom?
I am going to offer four principles from my own experience with writing and teaching poetry that may be useful pedagogical foundations for restoring the poetic back to the pinnacle of literature, community and creative personal expression.
Principle One: Become teacher as writer practitioner.
Take the risk, literacy educators, and start writing your own poetry, which can then be shared with students and may be the focus of class discussion and active existential engagement. As you write, as you practice the craft of creating text as a teacher (as an expressive person), you begin to understand, really understand, the nature of poetic techniques and discourse because it is contextualized and embodied in the experiential platform in which it is created.
As you take risks and model yourself as a writer to your students, there is, in my experience, a greater chance that students will write themselves and begin to develop a passion for poetry. Remember, that the teacher has power in the classroom and can bring an infectious appreciation of language with her into the learning space.
There is also the possibility of publishing the work, especially online, so that the writing of the poetry can become linked to an authentic audience, other than the artificial and limited audience that one finds in the classroom.
Principle Two: Weave the poetic into all facets of classroom life.
It is possible for English or literacy classrooms, to categorise poetry as other: as a discrete entity for study in its own right. Now, there is nothing wrong with poetry or poems becoming the particular study at a point in the curriculum, so I am not opposed to this genre-based teaching focus. However, that method of organising the delivery of poetry teaching may give the impression that it is something that has to be got through, rather than being a core literacy/communication modality that can be a part of all the literacy processes within a classroom.
In other words, poetry can become a part of all that literacy educators and English teachers do, across speaking, listening, viewing, reading and writing. It can become diversified into the decoding and encoding language processes of all educational spaces. Indeed, poetry, in its many expressions, shapes and forms, can become part of other subject areas, and can be used as a legitimate form of communication and creative expression.
For instance, a History teacher can a bring a focus to World War One and the conditions for soldiers on the Western Front not only through an examination of war poetry but also through students writing their own poetry about war and conflict and its consequences. Or, a Science teacher focusing on photosynthesis could get students in group to create a song about photosynthesis, including the lyrics (which can use poetic form). These students could perform the song, meaning that the poetic becomes the performative, which brings it back to its traditional form that was expressed in many cultures and indigenous practices.
Principle Three: Decenter the writing environment.
Writing and enjoying poetry can be positioned outside of the classroom and in the other meaning spaces of students. In these personal spaces students can become managers of their own learning, of their literacy enjoyment and of the processes of writing poetry that are meaningful for them. This decentering also has the effect of shifting pedagogy from a teacher-centred learning process to more self-managed, student-centred work. I believe it gives greater agency to students and increased ownership of writing.
Such decentred writing could counter the tendency in current educational environments towards very prescribed and controlled writing to meet outcomes and the rigid expectations that so often operate explicitly and implicitly in school curricula. In my experience such circumscribed writing rarely includes poetry or the poetic form. Thus, poetry (or the poetic) as a form of discourse is devalued and marginalized.
This decentred process for student writing of poetry can foster writing clubs and groups and the formation of writing and sharing communities mediated through online blog sites or digital writing platforms. Literacy skills in general, and the writing of poetry in particular, can thus be afforded through a ubiquitous publishing and sharing environment, one that is within the scope of many students and one that allows for the strong affirmation possible in sharing work and receiving moderated feedback about it.
Principle Four: Challenge poetry as a genre
The word ‘poetry’ carries with it a weight of authority and pomposity that needs to be challenged, can be challenged. The question is: what counts as poetry? Too often what counts is the authorized version of what so-called experts affirm as poetry. There is a sort of snobbishness around the writing and publishing of poetry, but this connotation of elitism tends to make it a selective form of communication and thus has an alienating effect in terms of popular culture and student engagement. So-called genre teaching has also tended to reinforce this idea that poetry is a discrete form and particular style that only some people enjoy.
However, poetry is located in many places in popular culture and everyday discourse. In songs and their lyrics, in newspapers and magazines, in e-zines and gaming sites, poetry lives and breathes and is part of the linguistic texture of the discourse and the culture found there. It radiates from the Classics and is central in Shakespeare’s plays; it emerges in the Rap of Tupac Shakur, in novels and plays, stories and liturgies. and in the rituals of funerals, weddings and public rites that we are all familiar with.
I thus argue for a disruptive pedagogy for teaching poetry and affirming the poetic. Not only is poetry everywhere but it is embedded in everyday discourse and thus it needs to be located there and seen as a natural form of communication that is both historic and contemporary. As a poet, I am all for writing poetry as a form of literary expression, and I would want to encourage my students to do the same. But students can also find poetic expression in other communicative forms and realms, and from those realms and in those forms it can come into the classroom and disrupt what amounts to stereotypical notions of what poetry is.
I have presented a pedagogical platform for teaching poetry and affirming poetry as a legitimate form of literacy expression and as a natural form of social discourse. The underlying basis for this pedagogy is that poetry is ubiquitous and thus needs to be conceived and framed that way in the presentation of poetic literacy in the classroom.
Poetry, if it is to become more than an elitist curiosity, must also be part of a decentred notion of writing in which each student can write and particulate in a writing community. And poetry needs to be conceived beyond some disembodied textual form: rather, it is imminent and embedded in human experience and the existential nature of living life and breathing in its meaning. From this experiential basis, I believe poetry becomes a natural and pleasurable from of cultural and personal expression that enhances literacy and promotes creativity and imagination.