There is something spitefully gleeful about telling a class you’re beginning study of poetry. As a teacher, you wait for the groans - the hyperbolic sighs – and allow yourself the smug warmth of a wry side-smile… for many an experienced English teacher will know that this much maligned genre is a source of joy for both teachers and students alike.
Maybe it’s the way most poems are able to fit snugly in the one hour study of a lesson; good poetry lessons sparkle in the grey of a Monday or else like snipers puncture the monotony of the school day. Forgotten is ‘progress over time’ when your class devour a poem whole in the twinkling of sixty minutes, and leave, satiated.
I would argue that reading poetry has the self-satisfaction of cracking a puzzle: for the A Level Media teachers out there, it’s Barthes’ enigma code or Altman’s pleasures of the intellectual puzzle transposed into literary form. Watching students’ pride in calling forth meaning from words that they had previously seen as meaning-less is like watching Faustus swell with hubris as he first conjured Mephastophilis. Only in a classroom there’ll be no inconvenient dragging off to hell, for this is a magic trick given not by the devil but by damn good learning and teaching.
Beyond acronyms of SMSC, poetry is a chance to philosophise, test out perspectives, and form a world view. Teaching teenagers how to read poetry seems like an utterly devious act when you find yourself traversing sex, philosophy, religion, and gender politics all in the space of five minutes*.
So it makes sense to me - despite the simplistic lure of AQA’s common sense AOs – not to start teaching of a poem by coldly looking at a set of criteria. No, this is a time to be impatient. When teaching a new poem start with the very best bit: the nugget; the germ; the gem.
Start with the best words (before considering why they’re in the best order). Start with the real toads (before picking apart the imaginary gardens they sit in).
To give a more tangible example, we can turn to the first two poems in AQA’s new ‘Love and Relationships’ anthology. For ‘When We Two Parted’ this nucleus can be found in the title. A swift parsing of the words via post-it notes will allow students to reveal for themselves the ‘crux’ of Byron’s biographical yearning for his lover at the end of their secret affair:
Parted The emotive verb indicates a separation: the end of a relationship.
We Two The collective pronoun and number symbolise a happier time of togetherness.
When The past tense evokes a melancholy tone and sense of nostalgia.
And, yes, as the teacher, I can then plug in the gaps, give ‘her’ a name (and what a name), and support students in tracing the patterns that reinforce these ideas in the rest of the poem.
In Shelley’s ‘Love’s Philosophy’ this centre can be found by sifting out the verbs (mingle, mix, meet, kiss, clasp) and adding a couple of short prompts.
What does it mean to be a couple? Are you truly one or truly two?
Is the narrative persona male or female? What are the implications of your decision?*
And, yes, again, I can then connect them to the Romantics and Shelley’s turbulent love life. But not before. Not before they’ve shaken the meaning loose from the branches themselves.
In teaching poems I always come back – groggily, groggily – to the excitement of the first time I taught Chris Hildrew’s lesson Plath’s ‘Mushrooms’. Try it yourself: remove the title and give the poem to your Year 7 students. Allow students to form their own ideas, using evidence to support their blossoming interpretations. Then reveal the title (and Plath’s demons). I’ve created my own ode to this lesson using Plath’s ‘Metaphors’: students draw the images in the poem and you watch the pennies drop before exploding their minds by revealing the final line.
If we steal these moments of discovery from our children through direct instruction and the idea we can ever wholly ‘know’ (read: tie down, commodify, ‘own’) a poem’s meaning we take away something so much more than a few gained minutes of teaching time. There is a danger the art of exploratory teaching will become a Lost Art as we regurgitate factoids and turn to page 67 in a text book.
I will give students the trowel, the spade, and help them navigate the wilderness of a poem’s landscape. But I will not be the one to dig on their behalf.
Let your students be Indiana Jones for once, taking risks as they discover.