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Poetry - Surely You See That?

I’ve often heard it said (and I say it almost often), that you learn something new everyday. Until I read Sandy’s piece, I too, confused poetics with poetry. Poetics. In my mind it sounds like a terminal disease.

Here is a poem about it.

dull and lifeless
killing completely
like a lobotomy without anaesthetic
if only I hadn’t

Oops – I got the title wrong. It can be hard to unlearn an association once it has been made. This is why I think we-who-call-ourselves teaches should be very careful about the associations that we make and the assumptions that lie beneath them.

Much of the appreciation for poetry I had was murdered at school. I remember struggling for hours to paraphrase parts of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (I was 13). I remember dissecting poems as if they were pregnant rats stretched out on biology workbenches. I remember that the only thing that seemed to matter was learning the right interpretation, i.e. the interpretation that would give us the best marks in the exam. There was no fun at all.

I exaggerate. Once I escaped the clutches of the Shakespeare fanatic life improved. By the time I was taking ‘A’ level English (A for advanced – ho, ho, ho), English lessons were tolerable. We even got introduced to the idea of parodying Shakespeare: “To hike or not to hike, that is the question”. Our teacher mentioned this one day but unfortunately forgot the rest of the poem and never mentioned it again. But the idea of treating poetry with irreverence remained.

Having said this, I remain scared. I am loath to look at a poem more than a side long and this is coming from someone who read Longfellow’s Hawatha, voluntarily and unprompted before the age of 10. I refuse to struggle with meaning, though this might mean I have a low tolerance for badly written poetry. I can’t stand the idea of studying poetry or studying anything for that matter. I’m crippled. I think with a limp. So how can I consider using poetry to teach English?

I’m very tempted by Charles Sandy’s idea of folk poetry. Except this seems to accept the language of the oppressor – to lean on a phrase from Paolo Friere. To me it suggests that there are two kinds of poetry. The important, the intellectual – the stuff that academics are made of, and the low brow, the poetry of the masses, all greasy from being wrapped in old newspapers like fish and chips. The people’s food. The people’s poetry. It suggests there is a social hierarchy and that such a hierarchy is acceptable.

Of course, I’m misreading. The point Charles makes is important. True poetry is real. Real poetry is truth. Truth comes from the dialogue between the poem and the reader. There is engagement. There is participation.

Perhaps it’s a question of culture. Just now I mentioned fish and chips. Does that phrase have the same meaning for someone brought up in England as for someone brought up in the United States or in Japan?

When Friere writes of the “language of the oppressor” how is he including culture? When Adrian Mitchel, sometimes my favourite poet (Dumb Insolence, To whom it may Concern, To you), is described as the People’s Poet Laureate, is that a blow for freedom or acceptance of repression or something else? And anyway, does it matter?

I think it does. How we treat and use language, how we treat and use poetry, how we treat and use our students is part of the process of creating the World. At the moment we are creating a World where bombing and starving human beings is acceptable. We are creating a world where it is rational to produce and stock-pile biological and nuclear weapons. We are creating a world where business benefits by externalising its costs. We are creating a world where politicians lie and we expect them to.

Aren’t we?

The World is a poem
Screaming in my head
Where I thought there was a rainbow
The only colour’s red
Oh just tell me what to do
While I crawl off back to bed
I know change is terror
That’s what the TV said
And that teacher voice
It still fills me with dread
It still fills me with dread
It still fills me with dread

I wonder how much any of this makes sense. I can feel the connection holistically but I can’t articulate it in a coherent, logical way. Does that mean what I’m grasping at has no substance? When Kurt Vonnegut wanted to write about his experience of being in the bombing of Dresden, while a prisoner of war, he found he could only do it by using Science Fiction. In the same way, I think that poetry can reach parts of us that in our usual daily life remain untouched and uncared for. Curtis Kelly writes about deep processing and deep internalisation. I guess what I’m suggesting is that poetry can reveal things about being human that the structure of daily life suppresses. It’s a way not only get to the core of a language but also of what life can be.

Ho hum

What about something I can use?

Ok, then. Andreas Lund has a web-page at this page. Here he shows one way to combine grammar skills with poetry skills. The poem I began with uses the structure he suggests. There are poems there from language students from around the world.

Then there are list poems, and there are haiku. Any poem that has a simple and clear structure can be used in English class. But there must be some meaning, some desire or some need or some thing to express, otherwise why use language at all?

Well with very young learners, two year olds, three year olds, four year olds, there is simply fun. We play with language because it is enjoyable. We are not studying it. We are not seeking to understand it. We create understanding and meaning as we go along. So I will play with the language. Sometimes I find myself rhyming. Sometimes I use alliteration. Sometimes repetition. It’s simply play.

So I will never study poetry, though you can if you want to. I will share it and I will create it. But for me, to teach it is to kill it. Here to end is a poem by Bertolt Brecht.

And I always thought

And I always thought: the very simplest words
Must be enough. When I say what things are like
Everyone’s heart must be torn to shreds.
That you’ll go down if you don’t stand up for yourself
Surely you see that.


October 2003
(Think Tank Column for ELT News )

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