“Poetry is a form of writing that, among other things, deliberately employs puzzles as a means of engaging the reader in the pleasure of solving them.” (Poet and critic John Fuller in his new book “Who is Ozymandias? And other puzzles in poetry”)
Although we’ve always loved poetry John Henry in particular has always avoided using poems in English classes, (except with young learners) saying “I thought my students were already challenged enough by plain language without having to find their way through texts that are designed to confuse”.
But perhaps there’s another side to the coin, perhaps the very uncertainty of poetic language sometimes makes it more valuable to learners than simple prose. Firstly, a language teacher is trained to encourage good learning strategies. We tell our students not to insist on analysing every word and structure, and when speaking or writing to be “flexible” and “don’t worry about making mistakes”. Which is exactly what poetry can be about. The enjoyment of a poem doesn’t need you to understand the meaning every word, because many are complex, have multiple meanings, and some are there just for fun anyway.
Poems are not sums. There is no pure right and wrong answer. This gives your students the freedom to take as much as they can from the text and leave the rest. Then when re-reading they can do the detailed analysis of some of it. This process of poetry reading involves the same skills that we use for prose; making predictions from the title, the opening sentence, illustrations (if there are any), and key words that “leap out” on first reading. Then we think about all that and read again, trying to get some sequence of events or description clear in our minds. And then we find ourselves thinking about the details of the language, the meaning of particular words and phrases.
Let’s take an example. We want our students to descibe an animal, it’s appearance, behaviour and daily routine. We take as an example the kangaroo (by the way neither of the Henry Brothers are Australian, it’s a random example). A sample text could be: (from wiki.answers.com)
A kangaroo is a marsupial, native to Australia. Kangaroos are known for their powerful legs, and all members of the kangaroo family share this characteristic of strong hind legs and short forelegs.
Kangaroos are herbivorous and the female kangaroo has a pouch for the joey (baby). The baby is the size of a jelly bean when it is born, and it grows and develops in its mother’s pouch. Kangaroos are well known for their jumping capabilities and use their tails to help balance. A kangaroo cannot jump if its tail is lifted off the ground.
There are over 60 varieties of kangaroo, from the largest, the Red Kangaroo, through many varieties of wallabies, and down to the tiny Musky-rat Kangaroo. Colours vary from reddish-brown to grey, with some, such as the wallaroo, having darker extremities (feet, nose, tail).
You will already have begun to think about how you would introduce the text to aid the predictions listed above. And you’ve probably begun to identify problem vocabulary and think about when and how to deal with it.
An alternative text could be “The Kangaroo” by Elizabeth Coatsworth.
It’s a curious thing that you
don’t wish to be a kangaroo.
To hop hop hop
and never stop
the whole day long and the whole night too.
To hop across Australian plains
with tails that sweep behind like trains
and small front paws
and pointed jaws
and pale neat coats to shed the rains.
If skies be blue, if skies be grey
they bound in the same graceful way
into dim space
at such a pace
that where they go there’s none to say!
With this text you have your students challenged and amused right from the first line. (Typical exchange: T: “Why don’t you want to be a kangaroo?” S: “Because I couldn’t eat jellybeans or play with my Lego” and “I don’t want to hop, hop, hop all day, my legs will hurt”). With those thoughts in mind the learner is under less pressure to analyse the details of the text. They would find themselves taking quite the opposite approach to the precise defining vocabulary of the encyclopedia entry.
This poem also has the language teacher’s dream: a built-in task. The question “would you like to be a kangaroo? is fixed in the reader’s mind from the outset. And that naturally adds a clarity to their thinking about what the animal is and what it does.
That same opening question brings us to my second point: poetry = personalisation. This poem is called “The Kangaroo” but it’s as much about you the reader as it is about the Australian marsupial. It starts with the question to you and finishes by leaving you bounding off into the wild, blue spaces. Which is something we all need to do sometimes, right?
Finally the artificial nature of poetic language allows it to be manipulated to focus on the teaching aim of the lesson. In the kangaroo poem we have repetition (hop hop hop etc.), and rhyme which allows us to focus on sound and spelling (you / kangaroo / too) (grey / way / say).
A successful language learner must surely take enjoyment from the words and structures, and what better way to nurture that enjoyment than with the games and puzzles that are the essence of poetry. So with that we’d like to leave you with a favourite poem of ours, the one that gives the title to Fuller’s book; Ozymandias by Percy Shelley.
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: `Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear —
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.’
Who was Ozymandias, the cold ruler whose statue lies broken in the desert? No one knows. But generations of readers have enjoyed trying to piece together a story of how it all may have happened. We hope you enjoyed it too, and that you manage to do a little English poetry with your students from time to time.