Teaching poetry: teaching from the microcosm

Poetry is scary. Lots of students find poetry hard, because it seems to demand a different kind of reading to other types of text. The very fact of being arranged differently on the page – with shorter lines, sometimes in groups, sometimes with rhyming words at the end – means that it clamours for a certain kind of attention. Consequently, poetry in the classroom is often surrounded by a haze of mysteriousness, a sense that it needs to be decoded using a certain set of operations performed in a certain order, the English equivalent of quadratic equations. Some people even advocate using acronyms to teach students how to analyse poetry, like SMILE (structure, meaning, imagery, language, effect) or FLIRT (form, language, imagery, rhyme, themes). But poetry is not mathematics, and you don’t have to apply some kind of literary BIDMAS in order to find something to say about a poem.

There are hundreds of ways of approaching poetry in the classroom, and these will vary from class to class, from teacher to teacher, and from poem to poem. English-teacher geek that I am, I enjoy the process of working out how to introduce a particular poem. Sometimes, I might use a word cloud to get students to explore patterns of vocabulary. Sometimes, I use an image or series of images (my first lesson on Carol Ann Duffy’s poem ‘War Photographer’, for instance, begins with images of photographs being developed in a darkroom, a process that students in our digital age often know very little about). Sometimes, I read the poem out loud, and then ask the students to read it out loud too, so they can focus on the sounds and their effects before they start to think about meaning. (Try this with William Blake’s ‘The Tyger’, and – if you’re feeling brave – get them to stamp out the rhythm.) And sometimes, I choose just one line, and focus on that. It’s an approach that I once heard described as ‘teaching from the microcosm’, and that seems as good a name as any.

Here’s an example. It’s the opening line of Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘Exposure’:

I put it on the board, and ask students to spend a few minutes jotting down their thoughts. Which words and phrases seem to be particularly important, and why? Do they notice anything about how the words sound? (I read the line aloud several times while they’re thinking.) Who might be speaking, and why? I’ll then ask students to share their ideas with a partner: this helps them to test out their initial thoughts and gives them some reassurance that they’re not going to say something completely off-track. Then I open the discussion to the whole class.

It’s often the kind of discussion that takes far longer than you’d expect, because there are lots of things that you can say about this line. The first thing that students often pick up on is the alliteration, all those ‘s’ sounds: two of them in ‘merciless,’ one in ‘iced’, one in ‘east’, one in ‘winds’ and one in ‘us’. Say the line out loud and it’s a bit of a tongue-twister. But it’s easy to pick out alliteration, I tell the students: you have to be able to explore the effect it creates. The clue is in the sharpness of the sibilant sounds, which mimic the relentlessness of the wind. (Some students think sibilants are always soft and gentle, but try that interpretation with this line and you’ll come unstuck.) Then there’s the personification of those winds. They’re ‘merciless’, they ‘knive us’. What kind of action does ‘knive’ suggest? The students talk about stealth and malevolence, a sense of intent. Who are they kniving? Is it one person, or a collective? It’s a collective: the pronouns are first-person plurals, ‘our’ and ‘us’. Everyone’s in the same situation. And it’s a miserable one. Look at those long vowel sounds in ‘brains’ and ‘ache’, drawn-out and weary. ‘A brain ache sounds worse than a headache’, a student commented once. ‘It’s deeper. It’s right in your core.’ And then there’s that ellipsis at the end, those three dots that trail off and leave us hanging. All that, from just twelve words.

Once you’ve discussed all this, the rest of the poem presents few challenges. It’s about the feelings of a group of men in a trench in the First World War, freezing cold, waiting for something to happen. It’s a miserable existence. It’s night-time, and the men struggle to stay awake. Bullets, when they come, are ‘less deadly than the air.’ There’s Owen’s characteristic use of half-rhyme, creating a feeling of unrest, and the lines all seem a little bit too long. Except, that is, for the refrain at the end of each stanza, and the repeated line: ‘But nothing happens.’

There are things you can say about the title, too. I get the students to find out what ‘exposure’ could potentials mean. There’s being exposed to the elements, of course, and the medical condition that can result from this. But there’s also ‘exposure’ as in revealing the truth, bringing to light something that might otherwise go unnoticed, and students might be able to make a link between this meaning of the word and Owen’s desire to challenge the view of war as noble and heroic.  

See? Lots of thoughtful, close reading; lots of scope for engagement. And not an acronym in sight.

Top reads on the teaching of poetry: Barbara Bleiman’s chapter on poetry in her brilliant book What Matters in English Teaching (English and Media Centre, 2019), Sue Dymoke’s chapter on poetry in Teaching English Texts 11-18 (Continuum, 2009) and Andrew McCallum’s Creativity and Learning in Secondary English (Routledge, 2012). If you want to get creative, Kate Clanchy’s How To Grow Your Own Poem (Picador, 2020) and, of course, England: Poems from a School (Picador, 2018) are fantastic. Sharon Creech’s Love That Dog (Bloomsbury, 2002) offers a different perspective on what poetry can do for students, and I really need to write a Teacher Feature on Miss Stretchberry at some point. You also need to read anything at all by Julie Blake, especially on the importance of reading poetry out loud and learning by heart.

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