When National Poetry Month comes around each year, I think back on the first time I taught poetry as part of a college composition class. It was nearly twenty years ago, and the class was English 102 (a second-year composition course at East Los Angeles College). I taught everyone from Yeats to Langston Hughes in 102 (and still do). My poetry assignments usually fall into one of two categories: literary criticism or rhetorical analysis. Asking students to identify a poem’s major theme and explain how the poet uses symbol, tone, syntax, and other elements to convey that theme to the audience can be a valuable exercise. I now teach writing at three different institutions, and I still enjoy discussing poetry with my students.
It wasn’t until very recently that I realized I was ignoring an important literary subgenre--the poetry review--when asking students to write about poetry. I was re-reading a review that I posted to Amazon.com on April 13, 2010. It was, of course, National Poetry Month, and it was a review of Ms. Anhthao Bui’s poetry collection, Yellow Flower. (Full disclosure: Ms. Bui is now my wife).
After re-reading my review of Anhthao’s collection (which weighs in at a mere 3 paragraphs), I thought about how asking students to review a poem (or a poetry collection) could help them formulate and support an argument. After all, isn’t a review an argumentative form of writing? The author is essentially asking the reader to read (or not to read) the piece in question. Such an assignment would require students to utilize rhetorical techniques as well as identify literary elements such as form and symbol.
My review of Anhthao’s collection begins with a catchy title (“Anhthao Bui’s Flowering Talent”) that ties in with her title poem’s central image (the yellow flower). I provide a clever but obvious “hook” in my first paragraph by alluding to a quote from Emily Dickinson that Anhthao uses in her collection: “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” I go on to identify several of the themes I believe are at work in Anhthao’s poetry, including the struggles of immigration, the heartache of love gone bad, and the dichotomy between the personal and the universal.
The final paragraph of my review begins with a question: “Is Bui the Yellow Flower of her book’s title?” I don’t attempt to answer the question, but I conclude on a positive note, calling Yellow Flower “a deftly-conceived poetic portrait of a woman’s life.” My review is not perfect by any means, but it could provide an interesting subject for a rhetorical analysis by my students. Such an analysis could be followed with an opportunity for the student to write their own poetry review. I plan to try this with my students next semester. I will report back to let you know how it goes.
How do you use poetry in your composition classes? How do you help your students engage with poetry? I look forward to hearing from you.