Teaching poetry has one advantage over teaching prose: there is more to explain. You can go into such matters as rhyme, meter, blank verse, free verse, assonance, consonance, alliteration, imagery, personification, stanzaic patterns, odes, elegies, sonnets, pastorals, ballads, epics, and dramatic monologues, not to mention (but you must be sure to mention them) similes, metaphors, run-on lines, caesuras, and, if you want to pour it on, vers de société and such exotic forms as the chant royal, kyrielle, pantoum, lai, and virelai.
But the best thing about poetry, to a teacher, is the chance to tell students what a poem, or a specific line, is about, assuming the poet had something in mind. Of course the teacher may, when cornered, simply shrug and quote Archibald MacLeish's "A poem should not mean/But be." The only trouble is that some student may ask, "What did MacLeish mean by that?"
I have taught poetry much more than prose and have learned all, or almost all, the tricks. It was many years before I discovered that provocative question, "What do you think?" I picked it up from a colleague who was known for his ability to stimulate discussion. If, while asking it, the teacher can put on a concerned, curious expression (an expression full of curiosity, that is), so much the better. While the question is being answered, the expression should reflect concentration, astonishment, skepticism, and grudging agreement, in that order, with just the right amount of pursing the lips, letting the mouth fall wide open, wrinkling the brow, and finally vigorously nodding the head. My colleague was not in English, but in History. If well handled, "What do you think?" seems to be effective in any field. But I myself have found it most useful in the teaching of poetry.
The great poets have inspired me to a form of collaboration. Tampering, some might call it, and they could be right. I feel, however, that the great poet and I are working together to produce something that requires more than one writer.
I began this some years ago when I fooled around a little with one of Wordsworth's Lucy Poems, "She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways." The first two stanzas I left untouched. The third stanza I altered
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Publication information: Book title: Hail to Thee, Okoboji U!A Humor Anthology on Higher Education. Contributors: Mark C. Ebersole - Editor. Publisher: Fordham University Press. Place of publication: New York. Publication year: 1992. Page number: 158.
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