Today on Imagination Matters, we welcome Imogen Lycett Green, Prize Director at the Betjeman Poetry Prize. Imogen has shared with us an article that she found particularly meaningful on the importance of teaching poetry. We’re pleased to share her introduction to the article:
Some poems are easy to comprehend, but poetic imagery and metaphor – the very elements that fire the imagination and create pictures which last – render other poems, to other readers, ‘confusing’. In front of their peers young people will often reject things they don’t understand. For this reason, many students are put off poetry at school, and after leaving school may never look at a poem again.
This article by experienced US educator Carol Jago, published on the Poetry Foundation website, is about how and why you might teach poetry. But it also offers itself as a resource for teachers, recommending that students hold a poem as if it were an imaginary object, turning it over in their hands and minds, finding a way in, and a way out the other side.
Jago explains that poetry teaches a young person to be ‘comfortable with uncertainty’, and aids the development of an ear for language, leading to more nuanced reading and writing. Advocating for arts in education, Jago adds that “[poems] possess a lifeline to some of the best thinking about what being human means.”
It’s my pleasure to recommend this article to the readers of Imagination Matters. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
Poetry lessons too often progress something like this: a teacher reads aloud with feeling a poem she loves. Because she is a good teacher, she doesn’t immediately start peppering students with questions about imagery and diction but instead gently queries, “So what do you think?” Silence. Not a raised hand in sight. But English teachers hate silence, so she starts talking, telling students about the poet’s life and influences, pointing out where the poem turns, explaining every allusion. In no time, the bell rings. Students shake themselves out of their stupor and whisper, “Phew! For a minute there I thought we were going to have to do something.”
What pains me about this scenario, which I have enacted more times than I care to admit, is that students leave class thinking, “Mrs. Jago knows a lot about poetry. Not me. I don’t get it.” They depart feeling both insufficiently smart and insufficiently soulful —the exact opposite of what we intend. They leave without imagining new worlds, different lives. They haven’t engaged the imaginative possibilities of poetry.
In the introduction to his book Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry(2011), poet and critic David Orr suggests that our whole approach to teaching poetry needs rethinking:
If there’s one thing that often unites academic treatments and how-to guides, it’s the implicit assumption that relating to poetry is like solving a calculus problem while being zapped with a cattle prod – that is, the dull business of poetic interpretation … is coupled uneasily with testimonials announcing poetry’s ability to derange the senses, make us lose ourselves in rapture, dance naked under the full moon, and so forth.
David Orr, poet and critic
He may have a point: students think they need to find the answer to the poetic riddle and participate in extreme emotional responses that often just aren’t there. In my experience, students don’t dislike poetry; they just find the art form annoying. A frustrated teenager may exclaim, “Why can’t the poet just say what he means?” Others may question why we make them read a particular poem, how it is relevant to their lives, why it is considered art at all, or what there is to learn from it. Along with feelings of annoyance, students—particularly students who consider themselves good at English—are embarrassed when they can’t immediately figure out what a poem means. Accustomed to having answers on the tips of their tongues, they are uncomfortable with the way lines of poetry make them feel inept. In truth, great poetry humbles us all.