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Gen Ed Poetry: Finding a Real Toad or Two

posted: 3.4.11 by archived

It’s poetry time in my Writing about Literature class, so I’ve been considering yet again how to approach talking about something  a majority of my students dread. I think back to my own experiences with poetry in college. Beyond the introductory Lit Crit course I took as an English major (I remember explicating William Carlos Williams’s “Spring and All”), I took two Form and Theory of Poetry classes, one as an undergraduate and the other in graduate school. In the first, the reading list was eight or ten books of poetry, many several hundred pages long: Rimbaud, Pound, Eliot, Hart Crane, Wallace Stevens. Despite my love of reading and my overall diligence as a student, I found my eyes bouncing over the words without much comprehension and I gave up partway through each book; instead I annotated a few poems while dutifully following the teacher’s comments.

In the second course, with a far different approach, we studied prosody and wrote our own samples of heroic couplets and blank verse, ballads, terza rima, villanelles. It took me forty exhilarating hours to finish my first sonnet. Neither of these courses, however, seem useful models for my method and goals in asking composition students to read, think about, and write about poetry.

In thinking about what I enjoy about poetry, and what poems and lines have stuck with me, I realize that much of my appreciation is fragmentary. I value images, like Elizabeth Bishop’s “the meter glares like a moral owl,” that let me see things in fresh ways. I enjoy lines like Emily Dickinson’s “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant — / Success in Circuit lies”  that make pleasant music in my mouth. I marvel at lines where sound matches sense, like Richard Wilbur’s “A ball with bounce but less and less.” So I’m trying out this approach: Find a poet that you like, and seek out some of his/her poems (or fragments of poems).

It’s not the approach we use when reading nonfiction—looking for main ideas, the structure of argument, how effectively details and evidence support focus and thesis. Instead I’m asking students to start with the sparkly bits (and asking myself if I’m being insufficiently rigorous).

The assignment. After we’ve read a variety of poems, I ask students to do the following assignment:

Select five or six poems from a poet you’ve enjoyed. Either find poems in electronic form or type them from hard copies into MS Word files. Use the Comment feature of Word to add notes and links to the poems, such as what you notice in terms of sound and meaning, images or definitions that explain unfamiliar terms, questions in places you don’t understand, patterns of related images, formal aspects of the poem, or anything else that catches your attention.

Next, in an accompanying reflective piece, trace your understanding of at least two of the poems. How did your initial understanding of the poems evolve through repeated reading and annotating? Are there still aspects of the poems about which you are confused? Characterize and explain that confusion. Include (either as part of the introduction or conclusion) a discussion of how you connect (or fail to connect) to these poems on an emotional, intellectual, or artistic level.

My hopes. I would like my students to see that rather than a code that’s hard-to-crack, poetry is language that can be appreciated without complete understanding; I’d like them to recognize that what passes for understanding is often merely a reduction to a tidy paraphrase with little connection to the experience of the poem. I would like them to remember the Hickory-dickory-dock pleasures of language and to feel the emotional force of an image or two. I would like them as writers to recognize the energy that comes with economy. I would like them to have lived with a few poems for a while. And though I hope they can see the possibility of pleasure in reading poetry, in this composition class I’ll settle for a response that may either generalize the sources of that pleasure or articulate what makes a poet or poem difficult, or, for the best poems (perhaps), a response somewhere in between.

If you use poetry in a composition class, I’d love to hear about your approach and how you believe it connects to your overall course objectives. Any additional comments on teaching poetry as part of the general education curriculum are welcome as well!

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Categories: Assignment Idea, Holly Pappas, Literature
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One Response to “Gen Ed Poetry: Finding a Real Toad or Two”

  1. Todd Finley Says:

    This exercise is inspiring. Thanks for the specificity!