Teach For Success: Why We Learn Poetry. Part 1 of 2
When I was in eighth grade I wrote a poem called "Many Paths Wander In My Mind," and they still do to this day. Sometimes I get lost for days! As I reminisce about that poem I cannot help but remember what I felt when I wrote it. I felt that I was imbued with an artistic talent, and that somehow, I, Chris Wilkins, was the muse, the creative genius which mankind had been waiting for all these thousands of years. I felt that I was creating... something wonderful. And, it felt liberating. The innocence of youth.
I had always liked poetry; but, on that day, I fell in love with poetry.
So, how does a parent or teacher justify to their students the teaching of poetry? How do we get them to love it, and furthermore, should we even try? Why do we learn to read, understand, and even (dare I say it?) write poetry? Soooo many of my students ask me the proverbial questions, "Yes, poetry sounds pretty, but how does that help me get a job? How does that help me write a great essay for the standardized state tests? How does this make me a better reader?"
These are good questions and valid; all of these good questions, which I hope my students ask, have concrete and solid answers. Answers that can help the student see the "why." Interestingly enough, our students already, and intuitively, understand poetry. If that were not the case, then the music industry would only exist for those few individuals who are gifted and not the masses of which I, am one. The stumbling blocks usually occur with new vocabulary, historical time periods, and figurative versus literal language. Sometimes, there is the inevitable problem with mechanics, or punctuation; however, at the end of the day, once these are understood, then the poem begins to make sense to the student. That is to say, they sense the meaning of the poem.
Poetry is able to convey more meaning than the words alone hold. The author is able to create understanding and meaning for the reader with an incredible economy of words, and these same words are structured in such a way that the construction of the poem gives each and every word added value.
Thus, a poem, is the use of words and language in a construction that amplifies or adds meaning to the words in the reader's mind. The reader, in turn, brings their life experiences to the poem along with their linguistic skills such as vocabulary, punctuation and so on. As with all reading, their exists the implicit contract between author and reader that each will "do their part" in regard to a specific idea; in this case, the content of the poem.
In addition, poetry tends to be "universal" in nature; poetry tends to be "everyman's" story. Poetic themes are usually ideas, concepts and realities shared by all Mankind; we could go further and say that poetic themes are shared by all sentient beings. Truly "universal" indeed!
Poetry is the greatest indicator that man's inherent nature does not change over time. Love has not changed since the first caveman (and woman) sought to protect his family from danger. Poetry is the lens which shows the reader that all humans share the same range and depth of emotion regardless of country, race, gender or time period. Poetry is a bridge to other cultures, historical periods, and individuals because it illuminates our similarities and allows for the idea that we are all one people. A global society.
Poetry exposes the reader to words that have been used in their most precise and perfect positioning with other words. When a poet chooses a word (which may have taken one whole day... or more), they have chosen from literally hundreds of words with similar meaning before they chose that particular word. It is this exactness of word choice that allows the author to exactly represent what they mean. This in turn, allows the reader to see how "shades of gray" can exist within the written word. It allows the reader to experience the entire spectrum of "shades of gray" which exist in the human experience, and as we all know, the world, and our experience of it, is certainly not black and white.
In part two of this article we will look at the mechanics of poetry and why these mechanics are worthy of teaching to our students. In addition, we will also take a look at figurative language and how our students can actively engage their use and understanding of these into their poetry reading.
Thank you for reading, and I wish you success in your teaching endeavours.