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Teaching Poetry - Recognising What Makes It Special

The English and Media Centre has just published KS3 Poetry Plus, a brilliant pupil resource structured around 8 units of learning and packed with inspiring poems and activities. This blog explores the complex nature of poetry teaching by drawing attention to some of the thinking that underpins the publication.
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EMC’s new publication, KS3 Poetry Plus, is the latest in a long line of classroom resources published by us on poetry. A quick backwards look offers a reminder of the approaches that have characterised our classroom work on poetry for the past 40 years. From the very earliest work in the 1970s, using DARTS (with cloze procedures, jumbled poems, sequencing activities, titles left off, fragments, before, during and after reading activities), our approach has encouraged students to get their hands dirty – to plunge into anthologies, make choices about which poems to explore, mess with poems, experiment with them, re-write them, interrogate them and, above all, treat them as something very different from prose. To read a poem, we believe, is to appreciate its illusiveness and allusiveness, to withhold cold critical analysis and the yearning for certainty for long enough to allow complexity, ambiguity, sound, musicality, verbal and visual patterning to do their sub-, or semi-conscious work on our thoughts and feelings.

It’s hard to explain to pupils what a poem is and what makes it special. In some ways, experience has to do some of that work for you. ‘I like this’, ‘I love that’, ‘I’m not sure what on earth that’s about’, ‘I wonder why the poet did this or that’ can take you quite a long way with many poems though. It starts a conversation that, like a snowball rolled through thick snow, gets bigger as it goes. A previous blog inspired by work with Richard Long's Year 7s (as well as all the other work on poetry in EMC’s group work project), shows how starting with some enjoyable experiences, and then building up understandings of the genre through metacognitive conversations begins to teach students the terms of engagement. And it’s the terms of engagement, rather than the literary terms, that we really need to pay attention to when children are beginning to study poetry. This means helping students to understand the ways in which readers read poems, why they read them, what there is to get out of them and how they differ from other kinds of texts. Literary terms are important, of course, but they can come relatively easily along the way, as part of explaining and exploring what’s observed and finding the precise language with which to express this. If it’s just pinning terms to features, however, then it is a thin gruel of knowledge, compared with the more complex, subtle, rich and intermingled flavours that come from examining ideas and feelings and discovering how they are conveyed through linguistic and literary choices. 

Richard Long, before we started working on poetry with his class, asked his students what they thought about poetry. He asked for their honest responses and an account of their experiences in primary school or before. The answers were interestingly (and unsurprisingly) eclectic and seemed to depend very much on how they’d been taught in primary school – everything from 'I’ve never read a poem' to 'I write poems in my head almost every day', from 'I find poetry confusing and boring' to 'it’s my favourite part of English'. Some expressed a bewilderment – a kind of ‘I don’t get it’ response – that we would all recognise, I’m sure, as being the view of poetry of many students.

The ‘I don’t get it’ response can, itself, be the start of a fruitful conversation about what poetry is. Poetry is language ‘in orbit’ (as Seamus Heaney said). It’s ‘language made strange’. The study of poetry needs to take this into account, embracing the defamiliarisation involved in reading the ‘odd’ language of poetry as a way into close linguistic exploration and analysis. This allows students to become explicitly aware of implicit understandings and expectations of different forms of speech and writing. Studying lots of poetry in this way provides an ideal opportunity for exploratory questioning about language, that can teach students about language itself.

The study of poetry as feature labelling, in contrast, has little to be said for it, yet the richer experience that comes from a more open-ended, investigative approach takes longer and is not very amenable to the kind of short termism that schools often expect of teachers and students these days. It involves asking questions, developing a sense of what is possible across the whole genre, absorbing insights by many encounters with a variety of poems. It’s deeply and unavoidably intertextual. You know what a ballad or a sonnet is and its parameters by reading several. If a poet stretches or subverts conventions, you only know that by familiarity with several examples. It’s much easier to prove that a student has learnt what a simile is and how to ‘spot’ one than it is to teach them to ‘appreciate’ what’s special about the way a poem uses similes in a poem, or why the poet has chosen a simile rather than a metaphor, or the characteristic use by that poet of similes. But the former task is narrower, less ambitious, and, in the end, far less interesting or likely to get students to write well about poetry, whether at KS3 or GCSE or beyond. It risks students getting permanently lost in a maze of detail, rather than having an overview, or map, which allows them to use detail at the service of bigger ideas. Long termism means holding your nerve and asking students to observe, think, respond, make judgements, play with possibilities, come up with authentic and significant ideas, which are then explored and exemplified through the details of poetic crafting.

Peter Barry, in his excellent article for The Use of English, based on a lecture given at an English Association conference at the Senate House, London, on 5th October 2013, argues strongly against the fixation on individual words in the study of poetry.

Often in essays or seminars, students tell us about a couple of words or phrases taken from a poem. For instance they detect and discuss assonance and alliteration, topics which all my life I have found tedious. The best response is ‘Tell me something about the whole poem, not just about parts of it.’ But of the naming of parts in poetry criticism there seems to be no end. It’s a form of ‘critical blazoning’, akin in spirit to those Renaissance poetic ‘blazons’ which catalogued the parts of a woman’s person without ever saying anything much about the person. So students blazon away, with talk of lexical sets, metrical patterns, consonantal rhymes, and so on, all of these having been snipped out from the living form of the poem. This focus on the words as such is technically known as lexical-field discourse, and the focus on meanings as semantic-field discourse.

He is writing about his experience with university-level students but it seems to me to be highly relevant to our own experiences with students at school. We have to start to recognise – as the Awarding Body Examiners’ Reports themselves do – that ‘snipping out’ what’s in a poem and ‘critical blazoning’ are neither a good way to teach poetry, nor a good way to prepare students to write well about poetry in exams. Interestingly, this was proved when Richard Long’s Year 7s came to write about an unseen poem, having been encouraged to think in bigger, more authentic and exploratory ways. They had something important to say about the poem – a broad understanding or insight into what the poem was about, what it was trying to say or make us feel, and how it went about doing that, as well as expressing strongly their own response to it. Whenever I show examples of these unseen responses to teachers, there are always cries of ‘I wish my Year 10s or 11s could write like that!’, which is telling.

EMC’s KS3 Poetry Plus does teach students about how poems are structured, how they use form and sound and line breaks and layout and rhyme and rhythm and voice and vocabulary choices. It most certainly has a strong agenda of making students more knowledgeable about the crafting of poetry. But it does so in ways that also encourage students to become alert, questioning, engaged readers, who have the kind of intertextual experience to allow them to recognise what this poem or poet is doing that is special, in relation to others. It provides opportunities to read more than just a few poems in detail – sometimes reading closely, sometimes ranging widely, sometimes choosing poems themselves, sometimes being directed to focus hard on a particular poem or poet. The anthology at the back of the book has nearly 70 poems, ranging in periods from Beowulf to the tweeted poems of Brian Bilston, from Dickinson and Blake, to Maya Angelou, Billy Collins and Inua Ellams. The publication brings together the reading and writing of poetry, so that students can draw on their own experiences both ways, to sharpen their analytical skills, and use their reading to develop their writing (reading as a writer, writing as a reader). It provides sequences of lessons on themes, or on a poet, or an angle on poetry, that might last for a few weeks, or a half term. But equally, it has 10 one-off activities, that can be sprinkled through Years 7-9 – open-ended, wide reading activities on the anthology that build up students’ experiences of poetry over time and expose them to a wider range of poems than just having a once or twice yearly ‘shot’ of poetry. In this way, over the whole of KS3, we believe that one can create the kind of readers and writers about poetry who not only enjoy it and can grapple with it confidently, but also understand how to write about it in genuinely interesting and illuminating ways.

Explore EMC KS3 Poetry Plus further (with link to sample PDF)

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