Don't Be Afraid: Poetry in the Classroom

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English teachers can be rather afraid of poetry, particularly at the secondary level where exam specifications are involved. This is a great shame as they are equipped and placed to be one of its most natural champions and allies. At secondary level the enjoyment gets replaced with worry and uncertainty. The tension in the relationship, at the secondary level, is referenced in Carol Ann Duffy's poem 'Head of English' and Keith Chandler's acid reply 'Visiting Poet.'

The received wisdom runs something like this: poetry is a vital element of any English course, being language at its most dynamic and subtle but it is, by virtue of its unpredictability and serial subversions, difficult to teach. Governments and exam boards often appear not quite sure what to do with it. In spite of and perhaps because of the many worthy criteria descriptions, poetry can leave the teacher feeling alarmed, naked and inadequate. The 'meaning' of a poem may be elusive--or allusive--and this is scary when an exam class is in front of you demanding to know what it 'means' for the exam room.

My first tip is, go out and see a poet reading. And at the end, go up and say 'Thanks. That was fun. Can I have one of those books signed for the school library? Meanwhile, listen, I'm teaching that last poem to an exam class and I think it means this--then say what you think it means--is that right?' The chances are the poet will say 'Hey, I hadn't noticed that before--no, it's not what I intended but yes, you're right, it's there' (or words to that effect). As long as your students quote that kind of evidence, they'll do well.' And of course, your students should find their own meanings in the same way, as long as they identify their own textual (and contextual) evidence. Good poetry (like all good literature) will always change depending on the reader and most poets will be flattered by any creative response. Who says they know what they are saying in any fully conscious and complete way in any case?

Even the most sophisticated and complicated poetry is only, as T. S. Eliot the great cryptic modernist said, a grown up version of the playing with words that a child naturally enjoys. It is the means by which an adult--even a fearsomely clever one like T. S. Eliot--can still enjoy language like a child while combining this enjoyment with adult complexity. All the poems considered here retain a strong sense of the playfulness of poetry that children respond to so naturally at the primary level.

My second tip, closely related to enjoyment, is: read it aloud. Trevor Millum's 'The Song of the Homeworkers' (see page 64) is a case in point. The title tells us it's a 'song' and there is an instruction: 'To be read or chanted with increasing velocity.' So the sound (and music) of the words is a vital element of the poem and before you've got past the first or second line, the (eternal) childhood fun that goes with this is very clear.

Homework moanwork Cross it out and groanwork

Start by getting the whole class to chant it together, louder and louder. They will doubtless agree with the anti-homework sentiment for some reason. They will also admire the cleverness of getting so many meaningful points against homework rhyming together ('Do it on your ownwork' always pleased my classes, incorporating a hybrid word that nailed the point with a rhyme, yet also sounding like a nagging teacher's voice). As children, we like the joyousness of nonsense rhyming; here, the poet combines this innocent anarchy with another effect of rhyme: its 'clinching' effect. If any of Millum's rhymes had failed to be sharp and pertinent, his whole rhyme and rhythm scheme here would have exposed such weakness unmercifully. So this is a very skilful poem that appears artless and is anything but. 'Homework hatework/ Hand your book in latework' is a mini dissertation on the educational impact of homework --it may well be a necessary discipline but it is nevertheless a regime whose educational benefits had better be vast to deserve the amount of punishment incurred. …

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