Thursday, December 23, 2010

Stuff I Don't Talk to Family About

I'm prepping for next term by reading a book of poetry I ordered for the poetry class. I've also ordered an anthology, but I've never taught a book of poetry before all at once. Here goes.

Wouldn't you laugh if I said I were teaching A Priest to the Temple? That would go over well, no doubt. Not.

I'm actually teaching a colleague's book; I'd thought about teaching a friend's book, but I chose the other because my colleague will come talk to my students about his poetry. But I don't have any clue how to teach a book of poetry.

Were I to say this to my family, my Mom would make the all too familiar circly finger near the ear sign. Everyone else would want to run away. I don't come from a poetic sort of family. Maybe there are no poetic sorts of family? Do some families read poetry together? Even kids' rhymes? Or is that some fantasy I have of a never-really-happened Victorian childhood?

Anyway, I'm trying to figure out some pattern, some theme, something to hold my teaching of the text together. If anyone has suggestions about how they approach teaching a book of poetry as a book, I'd love to hear.

I'm thinking of assigning some Billy Collins early on, probably this as a starting point for the second day: "Introduction to Poetry"

The book will come later in the semester, pretty near the end.

Tell me what you do to help studnets "get" poetry, especially a book, please!


  1. Anonymous5:44 PM

    Some people read poetry with their kids! At the age of 3, our daughter could recite the last few lines of Coleridge's Kublai Khan (beware! beware!). And I used to recite the Lady of Shalott to her. Right now, they're all a little more into kid rhymes. We have this big book of nursery rhymes that they absolutely adore. Then again, I was an English major.

  2. Anonymous8:47 PM

    Are you familiar with Mary Oliver's Rules for the Dance? I've never actually assigned it to my students, but I've found it very useful as a guide for myself in the teaching of poetry. It does focus on metrical verse primarily, but one can still apply the basics of it to free verse.

    I think teaching a collection of poetry is much like teaching a collection of short stories. On the one hand, each individual poem/story stands alone and does its own work. On the other, though, each is part of a whole. So let's say we're covering the first 3 or 5 (or whatever) poems in a given class period. I'll have students really dig into 1 or two of the poems, looking at the form as well as the content, and really teasing out how things work. Then, I'll move to talk about whether what they've found can be traced through the other poems for the day. What is the significance of the similarities and differences? Do the poems create a narrative (whether explicit or implicit) as we read them in sequence? Why/why not? How do these poems make us feel and how do our emotions change as we read them in sequence?

    Now, let me be clear: I am NOT a poetry/poetics specialist. That said, from talking to colleagues of mine who are, what I'm describing isn't that far off from the sort of thing that they do with their students.

  3. Well, I've never taught a book of poetry before, mainly because I'm not a huge fan of non-dramatic verse (or poems of most stripes). However, I can definitely sympathize with the reaction of family to teaching poetry. When I told my family I was specializing in Shakespeare, they did the whole "you're-a-lunatic" routine. Of course, they did that when I said I was going to go for my master's, too, so what can you expect? A PhD was unthinkable to them. Isn't it AWESOME to have, like, support? Sheesh.

  4. I've only taught units (about 1/4 semester) on poetry, but not a single-authored book. With individual poems that have unfamiliar words (Bishop's "The Fish" comes immediately to mind), I have students in teams look up every word they don't know and any word they think might have multiple meanings. That forces them to really slow down and look at the poem carefully. I'm not sure how to translate that to the level of the book, but I suspect the same peril--students reading too fast--applies. I know we read a ton of single-author works in my poetry classes as an undergrad, but I don't remember any particular method by which we were taught. I haven't read it, but I have heard good things about Edward Hirsch's book on how to read poetry.

    Tonight, over Christmas dinner, my mom and I got into an argument over pyrrhics vs. spondees and dactyls vs. anapests. Seriously.

  5. Thanks for the Mary Oliver suggestion! I started reading it online, and it looks helpful. I order Hollander's Rhyme's Reason, which I like lots.

    Wow, Leslie M-B, I don't think anyone I know cares enough to argue over pyrrhics vs spondees, even if they know what they mean. What were you arguing about? Who is pro-spondee, and who pro-pyrrhic?

  6. My two cents--- and I teach a lot of poetry.

    Obviously, read the whole book and decide what you think is important content wise. You will come back to these things often in remarks and observations.

    Second--- and this is so important--- be prepared to be excited about the language as language and read the poetry to them when you are discussing it (not all of it obviously--- but a number of lines here or a number of lines there). It is about the language and they should hear it.

  7. Bardiac,

    My mom, a retired English teacher who is clearly off her game, was saying there was no such thing as two unaccented syllables, and I had a couple glasses of wine, so I was all, "BRING IT," and whipped out my iPhone to prove that the pyrrhic does, indeed, exist. Alas, that was a fairly typical dinner for us, Christmas or not.

    On spondees vs. pyrrhics: I suppose if I had to come down on one side or another, it would be spondees. (If I were more clever and less tired, I would have written that last sentence in meter.)