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2019

This week's guest blogger is Pamela Arlov Associate Professor of English at Middle Georgia State University.

 

Metrophobia sounds like it should be the fear of cities, but it is in fact the fear of poetry, and many of my first-year literature and composition students have it. It’s my job to effect a cure.   

 

I have no illusion that this class of mostly non-English-majors will form a poetry circle or a Billy Collins fan club. But I do know that my students need poetry. Like all forms of literature, poetry provides a frame of reference for understanding life, and it does so concisely and memorably. If, at some crucial point in their lives, my students remember a poem, write a poem, or seek out a poem, my job is done.

 

When I teach poetry, I teach the usual components: terminology, figurative language, and rhyme. I expose my students to a wide range of poetry, dispel the myth that poetry means whatever the reader wants it to mean, and teach them to analyze based on what the poem actually says. But I also try to include extra elements that I hope will make it stick.  Here are my top four:

 

  1. I let students write a poem, an idea borrowed from a colleague. As we begin poetry, students almost always ask if they will have to write a poem. I make it an extra credit item and do not require any particular form, only originality and the willingness to read the poem aloud in class. Sometimes a handful of students participate, sometimes almost a whole class. Students may not remember Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” but they will remember a poem they wrote. Occasionally, a student tells me that a poem about a family member has been shared and treasured among the family.
  2. I let students analyze poetry in groups. When students talk about poetry together, they work out ideas in the poem in a way that they might not do alone or in class discussion. I often start with Edwin Arlington Robinson’s “Richard Cory.” This poem used to be a standard, but most of my students are not familiar with it. I divide the class into four groups, and each group reads the poem, discusses it, and takes responsibility for explaining one of the four stanzas to the rest of the class. I always suggest that they have a member of their group read it aloud first. As they reach the end of the poem, I am often treated to audible gasps and exclamations of “What?” as Richard Cory, with his seemingly perfect life, “[goes] home and put[s] a bullet through his head.”  When I hear that reaction, I know that students have gone beyond logical analysis and made an emotional connection with the poem.
  3. I use music to make connections. When we read Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death,” students easily see in the first stanza that “me” and “Immortality” are exact rhymes that suggest that the rhyme scheme will continue in the second stanza. But they are always resistant to the idea that “away” and “Civility” in the second stanza are near rhymes, and it doesn’t get any better with “Ring” and Sun” in the third stanza. So I bring up the lyrics video to Magic’s “Rude,” a song my students are familiar with.  We look at the near rhymes suit/you, hand/man, say/family, choice/boys, and by the time we get to away/galaxy, they are sold, partly because the singer pronounces the words in a way that helps the listener understand that the words are meant to rhyme: away/galax-ay rather than away/galax-ee. I also show them how almost all of Emily Dickinson’s poetry is written in ballad stanza and can thus be sung to the theme song of Gilligan’s Island (“The Ballad of Gilligan’s Isle”).  I even have a sing-along, even if it’s mostly me singing while my students laugh.
  4. I set aside a day to celebrate poetry. Taking inspiration from the Favorite Poem Project, I ask students to bring in their favorite poem. I direct them to Poets.orgPoetry Foundation, and to the Poets Laureate page of the Library of Congress for inspiration. I offer extra credit and bring cookies, and we read our favorite poems aloud.

 

I will never know if my students actually make poetry a part of their lives, but the fun lies in trying to make poetry accessible and memorable.

 

What are your tricks of the trade? Please comment and let me know!

 

Today's featured guest blogger is Shane BradleyAdministrative Dean, Writing Program Director, and Assistant Professor of English at Erskine College.

 

My wife bought a wooden sculpture at a thrift store. Unusual, gaudy, frighteningly top-heavy, I couldn’t take my eyes off it. More precise adjectives than the three in the previous sentence I cannot provide, for doing so might undermine this post.

 

On the second day of my high school EN 101 (Composition) course, she delivered her prized sculpture to my classroom. I’d asked her to let me take it, but with a laugh, she told me that wasn’t going to happen as long as I was riding my bicycle to school.

 

“And be careful with it,” she instructed as she relinquished the piece. “It’s fragile.”

 

Okay, there’s one more adjective.

           

Fifteen students looked on as if I’d just been handed a stuffed meerkat or a bowl of balut, exotics we don’t see often in rural South Carolina. Silently, I placed the sculpture on the table, stood back, and allowed raised eyes and fresh brains to scrutinize the curiosity before them.

 

“Your assignment is to describe this.” They moaned, already bored with another mindless descriptive assignment. “But there’s one caveat: Use no adjectives, adverbs, or proper nouns.”

           

Stunned silence.

 

“In fact, no talking at all. Study it; take a closer look. Touch it carefully, but do not share your ideas.”

 

For twenty minutes they scribbled, scratched, annotated, erased, and synthesized. At last, I asked for their descriptions.

 

“This was hard,” a student said. “I didn’t realize how much I depend on adjectives.”

 

I shuffled the stack and prepared to read. “The thing looks like a leaf. It has veins and is shaped like a triangle.”

 

“Good metaphors,” I said.

 

“Somebody used the word thing,” a student added. “We can do better than that.”

 

“It reminds me of a feather,” another writer imagined.

 

“But what kind of feather?”

 

“I can’t tell you,” the author quipped. “That would mean using adjectives.”

 

I smiled.

 

“She has a history,” I read. “Once a tree, somebody cut her down and carved from what was left of her an object that resembles the leaf of a willow. The wood is the color of river sand. Through the leaf runs a rod, like rebar, and it holds the sculpture to a base made of wood. She longs to once again be a tree, to feel wind in her leaves. She longs for her past.”

           

We listened to the description devoid of adjectives, and in our minds a picture emerged. Students looked at each other in surprise, for they weren’t sure one of their own had the ability to create such an image, much less an archetypal story.

           

The years have taught me that students want to be challenged, that they thrive on the intensity that comes from having to create without sufficient tools – in this case, adjectives. What this deprivation promotes, though, is the necessary push beyond that which is easy to that which requires innovation.

           

Our students will usually venture to the boundaries we set, but if we make those boundaries too narrow, we deny students the opportunity to test their imaginations.

           

What was the sculpture? A leaf? A feather? A tree long dead turned into an object of curiosity? No matter, for if given the chance, our students will help us see the world around them in a new light. All we have to do is provide the initial motivation and a gentle nudge. Then, and only then, might those ubiquitous descriptive assignments become extraordinary.