Poetry-The Power and the Passion

By Gallagher, Mary; Western, Karen | Practically Primary, June 2013 | Go to article overview

Poetry-The Power and the Passion


Gallagher, Mary, Western, Karen, Practically Primary


This article began with a battle between the authors--the battle of the exclamation mark! We both adore this particular element of punctuation and everything in this article is said with great emphasis. But, as writers, we know that in this area as in so many others, less is more. We started with putting exclamations in and then took most of them out-debating their importance along the way. Surely this is a reflection of the type of learning we want for our students when exploring poetry. Immersion, frustration, debating, thinking, experimenting, persisting and prioritising are all essential experiences for discovering the power of words and the passion of being a writer.

Both of us are teachers who have taught in the same school, lectured together in the same university and jointly presented poetry workshops. The strength of our working relationship has been reinforced by our mutual love of poetry. Karen (the irreverent, younger one) enjoys having fun with modern poetry. Mary (the distinguished, older one) can recite traditional Australian poetry she learned as a child off by heart. In each of our classrooms we teach and celebrate the joy that poetry brings. In our literacy lectures we encourage undergraduate pre-service teachers to develop positive attitudes towards teaching poetry by providing them with opportunities to play with language and enjoy the experience. In our workshops, we throw caution to the wind and read poetry, perform poetry and create poetry. In this article we explore the principles that underpin our approach and share some of the lessons we've learned along the way.

Whenever starting our poetry workshop, we ask participants to read a few very different poems and comment on them. The following poem, Introduction to Poetry by US Poet Laureate Billy Collins (1996) almost always prompts the most interest and discussion:

   I ask them to take a poem
   and hold it up to the light
   like a colour slide
   or press an ear against its hive.

   I say drop a mouse into a poem
   and watch him probe his way out,
   or walk inside the poem's room
   and feel the walls for a light switch.

   I want them to water-ski
   across the surface of a poem
   waving at the author's name on the shore.

   But all they want to do
   is tie the poem to a chair with rope
   and torture a confession out of it.

   They begin beating it with a hose
   to find out what it really means.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

This poem especially resonates with those who might feel they are failing poetry both as a teacher and as a learner. As Collins so beautifully shows, we must get inside and illuminate a poem-beyond the constraints of meaning, rhythm, style and meter-in order really to experience it. This poem highlights the need for teachers to move beyond analysing poetry within an inch of its life! Of course, poetry has its technical side and that deserves attention. However, it is also a versatile vehicle for our students to engage and explore language with delight, discovering the heart and soul of the words within.

When discussing poetry with pre-service teachers we ask them a few, very simple questions. Do you like poetry? Do you read poetry? Do you (or did you) write poetry? Can you recite a poem? Invariably we have a few isolated poetry lovers raise their hands in positive response, but these are very few. A puzzled look is cast towards them from the remaining group. Admitting to liking poetry-or even worse, admitting to writing poetry could potentially be a major faux pas!

However, when looking into our infants' and primary classrooms we see a very different story. We believe children have an innate love of poetry. They are innovators of language, mimicking favourite phrases with wonder and delight. Children invent patterns and beats that satisfy their strong desire to play with words. Spike Milligan captured this willingness to experiment with rhythm and rhyme in the poem On the Ning, Nang, Nong (1968). …

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