Teaching Poetry: Five ways in

I find teaching poetry to be one of the most difficult aspects of being an English teacher. To so many students I teach, poems are impenetrable puzzles, or written in language so unfamiliar that their first instinct is to balk before we’ve even began. It’s also an area I’ve struggled with. I’ve spent far too much time staring achingly into my laptop, or anxiously at an anthology, when I should have been planning a sequence of lessons. Often, I just don’t know where to being

What I hope to do in this blog is share five ideas for introducing poems. They’re probably not new ideas. They’re certainly not applicable to every poem. But hopefully one or two of them may be useful to edit, adapt or blend as appropriate.

1. Withhold the title

I’m sure many of us have had experiences where our students have read a poem and immediately stated ‘I don’t get it’ (usually after at least 30 seconds of effort). I’ve started to counter this recently by saying something along the lines of ‘good, I’m glad, why on earth would I give you something you would get straight away?’ Like any decent puzzle, students shouldn’t expect to ‘solve’ a poem immediately. Poems, like puzzles, are even more fun and rewarding when they require effort to work out.

One way to engender this feeling of solving this problem is by removing the title and encouraging students to figure out what it might be – essentially approaching poems like a riddle. Take Sylvia Plath’s Mirror. Withholding the title might force students to think more carefully about the voice in this poem, seeing each line as a clue to unpicking its identity. Eventually there might be a eureka moment, but only after some concerted effort. Aside from poems with interesting voices, this can also work with poems depicting specific characters. One of my most memorable sessions during my PGCE was on Andrew Motion’s Sparrow. Without the title, the short concise noun phrases (in this case, all kennings) give steady clues about the poem’s subject. Not knowing the title can force students to think carefully about the evidence in front of them, before attempting to guess the animal in question.

2. Parts before the sum

Sometimes I find my poetry lessons can be overcomplicated, as I try to cram almost every aspect of a poem into lesson rather than focussing one or two of the most important elements. In an attempt to counter this problem, I have tried to focus lessons on the most significant features of a given poem. This might involve introducing a poem with a handful of carefully chosen words instead of the whole poem, for instance, giving students only the verbs in Edwin Morgan’s Hyena. Students would then explore these verbs and the clues they give us about the voice of the poem before reading it as a whole. Or in Vernon Scannell’s NettlesI might give students all the words related by the semantic field of war, asking them to explore what mood or atmosphere these words create before exploring the poem further.

This can also be adapted to focus student’s thoughts on a poem’s structure. For instance, discussing just the first and last lines before the whole, or even presenting a whole poem with all words blacked out and only punctuation present, speculating over the effects of the punctuation before the initial reading.

Not only does this idea give students a ‘way in’ to a poem, it helps me focus on the most salient feature of each poem and concentrates my planning. Then the decision is whether to lead with this feature in isolation, or introduce it later.

3. The Big Question

If poems often explore elements of the human condition, then trying to get students to consider this same element of the human condition might provide a good starting point. With the right class, could William Blake’s The Tyger be approached by first discussing the nature of god, or whether a benevolent god could exist given the existence of evil? Or, with Sonnet 116, could a class start by questioning their own conceptions of love? If a poem poses a question, presenting the same question to students, with plenty of structure, might help them engage with the poet’s own exploration. It also might help the students see that even if the words are unfamiliar and the writer is long dead, the importance of poetry to explore these weighty questions is very much alive.

4. Lead with the images

If a poem has a key or central image, starting with this image can provide an excellent way in. This can work well for poems with a particularly interesting setting, like Heany’s Storm on the Island. A suitable picture of an isolated house in the midst of a storm can spark fascinating discussion about why someone would choose to build there, the qualities required for survival, and the feelings one might experience during a storm. For Choman Hardi’s At the Border 1979I have experimented with different images to set the poem in context. When displaying chains I might ask students to consider what this image evokes. When displaying borders on a map, I might ask students to reflect on the nature of borders, why and how they might be created and whether they truly separate the people on either side.

(There’s also good reason to use images alongside text to boost memorability)

5. Go heavy on context

This is perhaps my favourite way to introduce poems. Especially for poems with slightly archaic language or syntax, a story about the poet, or the circumstances surrounding the poem’s conception can provide an excellent way in. I’ve blogged before about an interesting story I have about William Blake. I love sharing this story with students before exploring his poems, challenging my students to empathise with his perspective  The new AQA Literature anthology is jam packed full of poems with fascinating contexts, especially the conflict section. For Blake’s London, I will certainly tell my Blake story (what, again sir!), but will be on the hunt for some interesting non-fiction to help contextualise 18th Century London, in all its gin soaked glory. I can’t wait to teach My Last Duchess again, but wonder whether I’ll focus more on the poet or Duke Alonso II, the supposed inspiration for Browning’s narrator.

Whilst navigating my way through these poems, I’ll be certain to consider whether helping my students acquire a solid foundation of contextual knowledge is the best starting point.

Now, time to stop staring at the anthology and plan a lesson.


One thought on “Teaching Poetry: Five ways in

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s