Sunday, 25 April 2010

The Sunday Salon: On Poetry

The Sunday

Have you ever told a room full of high school students that they are going to spend the next few weeks studying poetry? If you have you were probably faced with looks ranging from abject terror (“but poetry is HARD”) to looks of resigned boredom (“but poetry is BORING”). The thing is, poetry as a format is neither hard nor boring. Poetry, I maintain, can be fun, exciting and incredibly informative and entertaining.

That said, there are of course poems and poets that make me want to gouge out my eyes (please don’t make me read Dickinson or Arnold, I beg of you). But I have the same reaction to some authors or books. The wholesale dismissal of a format because someone has been subjected to poetry they did not enjoy makes me want to beat people with a two by four. It particularly upsets me because poetry is so easy to give people a wide variety of poems. You can easily cover everything from sonnets, to epics, to haikus, to humour, to U2 lyrics in just a few weeks of classes. I know I did. And if you aren’t a teacher, you can easily read a poem a day, it can take less than five minutes but really brighten your day. I mean who does not smile at this:


The day he moved out was terrible -
That evening she went through hell.
His absence wasn't a problem
But the corkscrew had gone as well.

                  --Wendy Cope

Four lines, but they never fail to put a smile on my lips.

corkscrew tss 25-4-2010Image Credit 

My students were incredibly surprised that they were not only allowed to discuss song lyrics but that they could be considered poetry. That they could compare today’s “sappy love songs” with Shakespeare. That The Beatles “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds” with Coleridge “Kubla Khan” (both were “trippy”). All of a sudden I had a room full of scientists discussing the differences between complex poems. After the unit was over they all agreed that poetry wasn’t as hard as they had thought.

For me poetry is great because it says so much in so few words. It can be hard to get busy students to read full length novels, especially when they are not humanities majors (here students start specialising in high school) but telling them to read three poems for homework didn’t seem like such a difficult concept. That felt doable for them, and for me it means that I can cover a lot of literary terms and concepts quite easy. Plus I love poetry!

Like with everything poetry is only hard if you go in to it thinking it is going to be hard/difficult/boring!

I am going to leave you with a poem that I will always have my seniors read:


If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you
But make allowance for their doubting too,
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream–and not make dreams your master,
If you can think–and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ‘em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it all on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings–nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much,
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And–which is more–you’ll be a Man, my son!

–Rudyard Kipling


Copyright ©2010 Zee from Notes from the North.clip_image001This post was originally posted by Zee from Notes from the North. It should not be reproduced without express written permission.


Nymeth said...

Though I happen to passionately hate that Kipling poem and the sentiment it embodies (Sorry! :P), I completely agree with you about poetry as a whole. And I love the fact that you let your students discuss song lyrics :)

Anonymous said...

I don't often read poetry, but I remember loving it when we read it in highschool. I loved exploring the themes with the help of a guiding hand.

I think it's great that you let students study song lyrics! I would ahve enjoyed that immensily, I'm sure.

I don't really like the Kipling poem, but the Wendy Cope one made me smile as well! I'd love to read a poem a day and smile like I did with that one as a reward.

Zee said...

Thank you both for liking that I use song lyrics. To me they are modern poetry. I do want to ask what you don't like about IF. I feel like I am missing something here.

Jade @ Tasting Grace said...

Yes that is really great you use song lyrics! I must admit I have a bit of a hard time sitting down with poetry sometimes. I mean, there's definitely poetry I've loved: Shel Silverstein, Langston Hughes, Poe, Pablo Neruda, Allen Ginsberg come to mind. But I think I've just had a series of teachers who made poetry a chore because we had to analyze every word in three different ways (that's hyperbole of course - but probably not by much!) and it just sapped all the life out of the poems. There would be an occasional moment where I did understand something a little better than before, but going through exercises like that had more of a tendency to drive me away from difficult poems and poetry in general.

readerbuzz said...

Good for you! Poetry is (somehow) both my favorite snack and my favorite entree!

Amanda said...

I'm afraid I fall into the "poetry is hard" category. I try it, but no matter how hard I try, I just can't understand it!

Dani in NC said...

I like poetry but I understand why some people find it difficult to understand. Some poems are all adjectives and images, and I don't have any idea what the author was talking about when I get to the end of it. Love or hate the Kipling poem -- at least it has a familiar structure that allows the reader to understand what Kipling had to say.

Jenny said...

How great that you let your students discuss song lyrics! When I started properly listening to the words of my songs, that's when I started to appreciate poetry as well. I like to see words put together in unusual ways, even when I don't absolutely understand what the meaning is. Quite often, the meaning of a poem or song I've liked for ages will just suddenly snap into focus one day - it's a lovely feeling. :)

Care said...

wonderful post! I agree that poetry is a word that often is loaded with too much meaning or ruined by bad teachers - I don't know. I like the fun and humorous stuff but have to admit that when I encounter people who love poetry, I get intimidated.

Rebecca Reid said...

I wish I was in your class in high school! It sounds like such a fun unit, with lots of variety.