Complete poetry resuscitation

A lot of teachers get the same look - the sigh, the rolling eye, the slump. 'We're going to be doing poetry in the next few classes!' You cringe through it, they cringe through it.

Mark Augustine, British Council, Malaysia

I have been lucky enough though to discover a few things about poetry and writing which have inspired me and brought me back to believing in my ability to teach it, and my ability to help others love it. To paraphrase Robin Williams in 'The Dead Poet's Society', poetry doesn't need to be complicated to be beautiful. This has become my mantra in the last year.

  • Keep it simple
  • Discovering the poem
  • Interacting with the poet
  • Conclusion

Keep it simple
One of the biggest misconceptions is that poetry has to be difficult. This just is not true! I have had some of my greatest successes with simple poetic forms like Haiku, Limericks, and even lyrical narrative like Dr. Seuss books which have short, simple themes. Haiku is usually about nature. Limericks are humorous and meant to poke fun. Moreover, each one can be used to convey simple ideas, using very simple techniques in writing to produce surprisingly sophisticated work. I would like to relate these through some short anecdotes.

Discovering the poem
One of my most surprising projects was when I introduced Haiku to a creative writing class in Malaysia. In dutiful teacher style, I spent an hour combing the internet looking at classical Japanese Haiku before discovering all I needed to know to teach it. Haiku:

  • Are three line poems
  • Have a syllable pattern of 5-7-5 (though this is dictated by the classical Japanese and should not necessarily be enforced in English as syllables can be shortn'd!)
  • Are usually about nature
  • Take place in the present (use phrases like 'this tree', 'these blossoms')
  • Are intensely personal (seldom use names, but instead use I / you / he / she / our)
  • Take on a remarkable literary device despite their brevity - juxtaposition!

When teaching it I followed a very time honoured approach used in ELT known as the guided discovery approach, which basically means helping students figure things out for themselves without simply presenting it to them.

  • I started with three simple poems each having some visual motif (eagles, icicles, mountains).
  • I then got pictures of these, split them into groups, and gave each group one picture. Groups had two minutes to write a three-line poem based on the picture.
  • When finished, poems were written on the board (much to the students' chagrin). Putting them side-by-side with authentic Haiku these pictures were based on, students started forming a basis for comparison.
  • At that point I was able to activate them and set their minds to work, saying:
    'These are called Haiku. Look at all three! Tell me
    • what they have in common and (therefore)
    • what makes each a Haiku!
    • of the poems you've written, which ones resemble Haiku most closely!'
  • Within minutes, the class as a whole had compiled almost all the points listed above. They took back their own work and each group rewrote its Haiku to match the form they uncovered.

Using this method as a way into poetry can be incredibly rewarding and encouraging as young people automatically feel that they can take control of the work. As a side note, the exact same technique can be used for other poetic forms as well. Limericks, for example, were done in the same way with a great deal of success. I gave my class objectives which followed the spirit of the poetic form I aimed to teach.

Interacting with the poet
Despite the fact that I dealt with poems written by poets long since passed away, I did not let the opportunity pass by to let my class meet the writer in one of my few truly inspired teaching moments. As I said before, one common feature of Haiku is juxtaposition. That is, the setup of two separate ideas or images against one another in the same poem or text. Japanese poets do this by setting up the first two lines against a surprise ending. Here is an example of my own:

Fallen, bloody gifts
Plunged in me, this dagger sticks
Tears on red blossoms

(Intended meaning: Someone cries over flowers rejected by their lover.)

If you look at classical Haiku, you can see several examples of this final 'punchline'. I, however, took a risk and started giving my class the first two lines only and asking them to fill in the third.

By doing this, students took control of the poem and were able to engage with it. They were able to react openly and honestly to each others' final lines. In the end, they got excited and wanted to find out what the final line was. When they realised that more than a few of these poems had a 'punchline' ending, they tried quite hard to predict them. This allowed them to get into the mind of the poet and help them understand what someone, several hundred or even a thousand years ago, was thinking. Oddly enough, this technique backfired though! With one Haiku, I took a risk and asked the class to predict the last line of the following poem by Buson:

With no under robes,
bare butt suddenly exposed
deleted third line: a gust of spring wind

Students came up with a few funny lines, some rather banal, mostly the room filled with quiet blushing, but one young man brought uproar with the final line 'every inch a man'. I had to admit, I set myself up for it. What pleased me most though was, not only had the activity engaged the class, made them laugh and think, this boy had taken the time to make that final line fit with the conventions of Haiku. It had five syllables! Activities where students interact with and engage the poem and access the thoughts of the poet are invaluable to the teaching of poetry. This kind of activity is great for helping students better understand poetic forms, predicting endings or final words for classical sonnets, rhyming couplets, limericks, and song lyrics.

Of the pen and the sword, it has been said that the pen is mightier, personally I feel it is also harder to wield effectively. I know this because in the past year with my creative writing class I made a commitment to them that I would not ask them to do anything which I was not willing to do myself.

I set off on a mission to complete my own homework assignments. If I said 'Write three Limericks by tomorrow', that applied to me as well. Consequently, I was much more forgiving when they came up with something less than perfect, or produced two instead of three. Why? Because quite often I had done only as much myself. I always tried to set an example by being the first to stick my neck out to present my work for their perusal, or better yet, mix my own in with theirs and present the pile to the class without names on papers. It is humbling when your student catches a spelling mistake but from their point of view it made poetry writing less daunting. Other teachers argued with this approach, but I feel I achieved a lot in this way. My students were not genius writers but they were becoming much more prolific in their writing practice. Writing was no longer just a function, it was starting to become more than that. It was starting to become a form of play instead of work.

Further reading
Creative Poetry Writing by Jane Spiro
Literature in the Language Classroom Collie & Slater CUP 1987
Literature Duff & Maley OUP 1990
Teaching Literature Carter & Long Longman 1991

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