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Poetry in the classroom

October 02, 2007

Hello again,

A commenter mentioned recently that he found it hard to interest his class in poetry. I thought I would like to discuss some approaches...

... here to perhaps help the commenter and others who would like to use poems in the classroom.

First, the class needs to be prepared for this type of input. Will they be interested? That depends on how relevant and exciting they find the idea. So first be clear in your own mind about why you want to use poems. For me the purpose of introducing students to English poems is that they open up a different way of using language. Instead of a focus on logical sequence, grammatical structure, clear and denotational meaning, poetry engages the imagination and the senses. The relationship between words depends as much on juxtaposition as on grammatical structure; the words evoke images and connotations; the sound is important and we can often see and feel the meaning in ways that are not usual with the language of everyday communication.

Because we are appealing to the right hemisphere of the brain, students are not so burdened with logic and the concept of what is correct in language. They can appreciate a new form of expression and they can learn that their personal interpretation is as valid as anybody else’s: there is no absolute right or wrong response. However, if they have a strictly pragmatic approach to learning English, they may not feel that poetry supports their goals. To prepare the class and overcome this rigid thinking, I suggest teachers use the warm-up exercise that can be downloaded from: http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/download/britlit/metro/metro.shtml/.

Choosing the first poems wisely is very important. I like to start with folk songs so that the music helps the initial experience. A favourite of mine is She Moved Through the Fair. Hear two verses of the song here : http://www.chivalry.com/liza/sounds/movedthrufaire-x.mp3/. This is anelliptical Irish folk song has a pleasing tune and is open to all sorts of interpretations. It also has very strong narrative and visual elements:

My young love said to me, "My mother won't mind
And my father won't slight you for your lack of kine"
And she stepped away from me and this she did say:
It will not be long, love, till our wedding day."

As she stepped away from me and she moved through the fair
And fondly I watched her move here and move there.
Then she turned her way homeward with one star awake
Like the swan in the evening moves over the lake.

The people were saying, no two ever were wed
But one had a sorrow that never was said
And I smiled as she passed with her goods and her gear,
And that was the last that I saw of my dear.

Last night she came to me, my dead love came in
So softly she came that her feet made no din
And she laid her hand on me as this she did say
"It will not be long, love, till our wedding day."

Explain the meaning of “kine” (cattle) in the second line and the rest of the vocabulary is very easy. Point out the very simple but moving images of the star and the swan. Invite the students to explain what happened. You could follow up by asking the class to describe similar folk poems from their own language.

I then like to move on to a poem with a very strong rhythm to keep the sound of poetry at the forefront of their minds. I often use Auden’s Night Train for this. The evocative rhythm and the sense of crossing vast tracts of country and experience make it a poem rich to explore. My next choice is usually Dylan Thomas for the rich and symbolic visual imagery.

I hope this gives you some practical help!

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