Monday, October 09, 2006

Poetry and observational skills

I'm still working on revising my paper. One of the things I've become more conscious of the longer I teach is that I should actually try to define my terms and explain what I'm after. Yeah, years of teaching composition have actually managed to help me learn some basic composition skills.

In the first version of the paper, I jumped from my narrative (which was a different narrative then) to talking about working with a specific poem. Now, though, I think what I need is a section that explicitly talks about what sorts of observations I want students to learn to make when they learn poetry.

When I teach poetry or verse reading, I start from the assumption that my students are every bit as uncomfortable reading poetry or verse as I was when I entered grad school. To be honest, I wasn't one of those kids who grew up knowing lots of nursery rhymes or memorizing poetry. Maybe my folks didn't much like reading poetry or rhymy books aloud, or maybe they did and I just didn't get into them. My point is that most of my students don't come to poetry easily and don't read poetry for pleasure. If their primary school experiences are anything like mine, they can remember being absolutely tortured by a poem or two in grammar school. I still vividly recall the illustration that went along with some Robert Louis Stevenson poem we read early in my grammar school career, but I remember nothing of the poem itself. My high school experiences taught me only that I had no clue what an iamb was, and when told to write lines in iambic pentameter, I got an F for writing in trochees. It wasn't exactly a promising start for a future Shakespeare person. So, I start with the assumption that my students need a lot of help reading poetry. I'm happy when any student invalidates that assumption, but it doesn't happen often.

In fact, even when students come to my classes, as they sometimes do, thinking of themselves as someone who wants to write poetry, they often don't read lots of poetry, so they still need help reading. And, of course, along with my colleagues who teach creative writing, I hope that reading poetry well will contribute to my students writing it well.

So, what parts of poems do we need to focus our observations on? First, the taste. I want students to read poetry aloud and think about how it feels, or how it tastes in their mouth. My students always look at me rather askance when I ask them how the poetry feels or tastes when we begin, but since poetry is for me a very verbal and aural art, I think it's central to reading poetry.

When I ask students how the poetry feels or tastes, I'm not looking for any sort of technical terms. What I want is real observation. Do you speed up or slow down at any particular words or lines? Do you stumble over words? Do you like the way one or another word feels coming out? Is one word harder to say, or less comfortable? Do you notice yourself saying some words more or less strongly?

The second thing I want students to observe carefully is how the poem sounds to them. I want them to think about how it sounds when someone else reads it aloud, and when they read it aloud themselves. What words sound strong? Where do readers speed up or slow down? What seems to slip off the tongue, and what seems to make the reader stumble or whatever?

Let me admit here that I spend a lot of time waiting when I first ask students about the way a poem tastes in their mouth or sounds. I don't think primary schools talk about reading aloud in that sort of way; they're mostly interested in basic competence. I've learned from experience that I can't assume basic competence, but with some practice and a bit of repetition, even a student with difficulties reading aloud can get out a few lines of poetry enough to start talking about how it feels and sounds to them. I try to separate out observations about reading aloud and listening, but they also come together and overlap.

Without much technical vocabulary, my students can begin to talk about their observations. They generally know what rhyme is, but haven't thought about it in terms of repetition of sound. Once they think about rhyme in terms of repetition of sound, then they can see that the other repetitions of sound are like rhyme, but different. They hear repetition of consonants, and once they get a feel for that, then my telling them that we have a name for it, alliteration, gives them a way to talk about what they've felt and heard. But feeling and hearing have to come first.

They don't need to know about formal metrical structures to begin to talk about what feels strong in their mouth or sounds strong, but we're getting at the issues. I think it's worth a lot to hold off on more familiarly metrical poetry until they trust their mouths and ears a bit. I don't want them just seeing a line and saying "it's iambs!" without thinking about how it feels and sounds, even if they're mostly right that a line is iambic.

The next, probably most difficult step, is to think about how the things they feel and hear relate to the connotations and denotations of the words. For that, I have to make sure they understand the words of the poem. At the beginning, I'm careful to choose a poem with very familiar words. But as they progress, looking up words becomes central to the experience of reading poetry or verse.

The greatest difficulty here is that there's no one to one necessary correlation between the way something feels and the denotations or connotations of words, or the meaning of a given poem. We recognize general patterns, and can teach those, and they can help students find limits, much as my knowing the large mammals in my area meant that I didn't have to worry about the differences between pigs and wart hogs.

So at some point, it can help students to play with very short lines of verse, and think about how those feel, especially when they rhyme. We can get a feel for the silliness of lots of rhymy short lines, the Doctor Seuss feel. It's hard to write a really serious poem in trimeter couplets. But only after a lot of experience can students begin to feel the expectations that comes from having a sense of generic history, that a sonnet in iambic hexameter feels different somehow from the expectations, that a subtle move to couplets in dramatic verse is meaningful. We can begin to give students a taste of generic expectations, and to talk about those issues, but in an introductory class, I don't think we can get very far in actually developing that sense.

Once I've had students talk about how a poem feels in their mouths or sounds, and how that seems to relate to what it says, I start focusing on imagery, and asking them to do quick sketches of imagery. Maybe it's because I have a really visual memory, or because I rather like really silly line drawings, but quick sketches help me visualize and remember imagery. Sketches help me focus students on what's important in the imagery, help me teach them to observe the imagery closely, and to ask questions when something about it doesn't quite add up or make sense, if only because they don't have the background story.

So, there's the next section. Is it enough, do you think, to spend so much time talking about the taste and sound of poetry, and to leave the denotation/connotation thing with far less attention?

My plan at this point is to move from here to discussing the specific poem I use to begin teaching poetry.

Another question. I can, if I want, I suppose, make a bit of a powerpoint to show the poem or an overhead. I much prefer writing it on the board. I think writing it on the board lets me be more fluid about what people feel in their mouths or hear when they read this poem. And yes, I'm going to have my audience read the poem aloud and start to talk about it. And maybe even put up silly sketches.

I'm also thinking as I read it over that I should dump some of the detail about my own school experiences, because, really, who cares about the details?


  1. I really like the stuff about taste and feel.

    I'm afraid I don't have any brilliant insights, I'm just laughing because when I was in high school I told a college interviewer that I liked poetry and he said I was an aberration (sp?). Hee.

  2. Your blog has made my high school English teacher very happy. This entry prompted me to find him and send him an email thanking him. I'll tell you about him tomorrow. BTW, great presentation.