Four Things About ‘Teaching’ Poetry

by Geoff Page


Recent events have suggested there may soon be a renewed emphasis on teaching poetry in Australian schools. To Australian poets, and lovers of poetry, these rumours should be welcome. For course designers and English teachers there may now seem to be an attractive vacuum – which needs to be filled intelligently. Extremes, such as the rote learning of a few nineteenth century poems ‘set’ by the teacher (or some distant committee) or the imposition of a swag of pseudo-postmodern ‘critical theory’, need equally to be avoided.

As a poet and a former teacher of poetry at secondary level (mainly years 11 and 12) for 38 years, I hesitate to map out a detailed course to suit everyone but there are four crucial principles which need to be kept in mind – preferably at all levels, not just in those ‘Extensions’ for students who want to specialise in literature.

  1. The Oral Aspect. Poetry was oral for thousands of years before anyone got around to inventing a script for writing it down. It’s still an oral art form. Poems are best appreciated when read aloud – by the poet if still available or, more often, by the teacher and students themselves. And read aloud more than once. Read aloud until they’re read well. Read aloud, not just for subsequent dissection but as part of a ‘read-around’ for the class’s irresponsible enjoyment.
  1. A Sense of Choice. Let the students have some say in what poem or poems they’re going to present or talk about. Obviously this will be within (fairly wide) parameters set by the teacher (and those, apparently inescapable, curriculum writers). Such parameters should give the whole experience some coherence but the students should also be making their own choice at some point. This may be heavy on the school’s photocopier but we shouldn’t worry about that. A good teacher never relies on a single text or anthology.
  1. Technical Knowledge. It’s never enough when discussing a poem to talk merely about its content, as if it could be paraphrased to a prose equivalent and considered as a newspaper article or an op ed piece. With poetry, no matter how seemingly simple, language is always important. And language includes not only imagery (metaphors and similes etc – which most teachers are comfortable with) but metre and rhythm (which are not the same thing, incidentally). Students, even in junior high school, can enjoy being able to talk about the effect that a reversal of stress at the beginning of a line may have on the whole line. ‘Something there is that doesn’t love a wall’, for instance, to quote Robert Frost at the beginning of ‘Mending Wall’.

In senior classes students may also enjoy being able to point out how the lineation of a free verse poem by William Carlos Williams really works (and even perhaps why he often seemed to ignore it in his recordings). When the poet is free to ‘turn’ a line wherever he or she wants to the decision about just where to do so becomes crucial.

On the other hand, such discussions shouldn’t be overdone. One or two technical points (preferably noted by the students) will probably be enough unless the discussion suddenly takes off – as it can sometimes do. Every now and again, it is good to analyse a poem thoroughly, looking at both its content and its form and (ideally) how they are woven inseparably together.

With poetry written in stricter forms (and in the history of poetry in the English language there is much more of that than there is of free verse, even now) it’s important that students start early on the business of metre and rhythm. They certainly need to know exactly what an iambic pentameter is but it’s best if they can recognise readily the four main metres, not only iambic and trochaic but also the two triple metres, dactyllic and anapaestic. The same goes for line lengths; not just the pentameter but the tetrameter and trimeter and so on (the way, for instance, the latter two are alternated in a ballad stanza).

Similarly, at the senior level anyway, they should be able to differentiate between the rhyme schemes of a Petrarchan sonnet and an Elizabethan one (and, more importantly, its effect). Likewise, the recognition of the abcb rhyme scheme of a ballad stanza.

They also need to be familiar with the business of rhythm in traditional verse, the variations the poet makes in a particular line on the metre, that platonic archetype ticking along underneath it. They should be able to note important rhythmic changes such as those in the last two lines of Dylan Thomas’ ‘Fern Hill’: ‘Time held me green and dying / Though I sang in my chains like the sea.’ Even the absence of such variations can be significant. ‘The grave’s a fine and private place / But none, I think, do there embrace’, to quote Marvell. This emphasis, of course, is not a substitute for also discussing the general thrust of the poem but it’s no less important. No less important, too, is the whole business of sound effects: assonance, alliteration, onomatopoeia (even the sound of long and short vowels) and the effects generated thereby.

  1. Context. Students, like the rest of us, have a natural curiosity about who wrote the poem and what, if anything, we know about her or him personally. Historicists would have us look at the context as much (or more than) the poem itself. New Critics would enjoin us to look at the poem and nothing else. There’s surely a happy medium here. Certainly some context is useful.

The poet’s birth and death dates for a start. Who else was writing at the time? The shared attitudes of the group of which he/she may have been a part, e.g. the Romantics versus the Augustans. Or New Yorkers v. the Beats, if we want to update a little. At some stage serious students need to build up some sense of the long poetic tradition in English (and why not in a few other languages, via translation, while they’re at it?). This is best done via units which explicitly examine the tradition (or parts of it) but it can also be at least hinted at in units where poetry may be just an incidental part of some wider concern. There is no single area or period which is sacred here – though, obviously, not all can be covered or even alluded to.

For too long the study of poetry in Years 11 and 12 has been reduced to a consideration of a dozen or so poems by each of four or five, often very different, poets. Typically, the poets chosen are indisputably major figures in the canon – with one or two contemporary poets thrown in – often for their ‘relevance’. Fifty or sixty poems, however closely scrutinised, can never be enough for a serious student at this stage. The habit of treating a poem as an example of some wider sociological concern is also too frequently seen these days.

Though the latter approach will inevitably be superficial, the close scrutiny involved in the former may also be counterproductive – especially if teachers want students to develop the lifelong habit of reading poetry for enjoyment. A few poems in depth, yes, but not too many or the victim lies dead on the slab.

So there are my four criteria, namely, the oral aspect, the importance of choice, the provision of context and an emphasis on technique. Any poetry syllabus that does not involve these four is doomed to repeat the mistakes of the distant and/or recent past.

1 thought on “Four Things About ‘Teaching’ Poetry

  1. When you say ‘canon’ – is that The Western Tradition? European? British? Irish? American? Australian? or Indigenous etc – did it have an equal number of women and men? Black and white? Your canon may not be my canon – possibly the teacher can throw in a few of his/her own? fifty or sixty poems over a two year period is not enough? this may require some extra curricula activity.

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