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Poetry in the Language Classroom

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This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.

Some years ago when I was teaching a non-AP® Grade 11 university-prep course, and we were required to include poetry as part of the provincial curriculum for that course, I dreaded the inevitable groans that I knew would come when I told the class we would begin our poetry study. No matter how enthusiastic I was about the poems, no matter what kind of scaffolding we used (Connie Vermeer's TP-CASTT was a favorite), the students felt helpless deciphering poetry.

And yet they'd speculate endlessly about the meanings of the lyrics of songs they liked, memorizing them, reading into them, debating the meaning of a single word or phrase in context.

So one day I had this little dialogue in my head as a rationale for an assignment (which I actually wrote down and saved as a planning document, and then as the preamble to the assignment itself, a testament to my desperation at the time to find something that worked):

A teacher was asked to help create a new poetry anthology for high school students. When she submitted her proposed poems, though, her publisher balked.

“Half of these are songs!” he cried.

“Yes,” she replied. “What, you don’t think songs are poetic?”

“Well, they’re catchy,” he grumbled, “but they hardly have the depth to be considered poetry.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that,” the teacher replied, a sly smile creeping over her face. “I find some of these lyrics pretty obscure. Oh, I admit, a lot of songs are terribly literal, and mainly rely on the music to draw an audience, but don’t you think some song lyrics are just as worthy of investigation as poetry?”

“You really think kids can find as much depth in song lyrics as we can in poetry?”

“Maybe they can. Who knows?”

“All right. I’ll strike a deal with you. If your students can show me that they can explicate a song as well as they can explicate a poem—and they’d have to demonstrate that they know what it takes to explicate a poem, mind you!—then we’ll take your suggestion and print songs in the book too. But they’ll have to be the songs your students choose,” he added as a caveat, “or it won’t appeal to high school students!”

So that’s the challenge. Can you find a song worthy of explication? Can you demonstrate that you know what explication involves in the first place?

The assignment (and I cannot lay claim to this idea as unique--I have seen similar assignments elsewhere) was not only to perform the explication of the song itself, but to find a song that could be explicated in the first place, and then do so (thereby demonstrating an understanding of the figurative nature of the lyrics), and finally to compare the song to a poem from our class anthology by way of how each addresses a common central theme, explicating the poem too. It hit many of our central expectations for our poetry study, and gave the students a hook that appealed to them (although some did balk at "ruining" the songs they liked by analyzing them, a charge that seems to persist and perhaps a topic for another post).

In the attached sample (see link at the bottom of this post), which I created to demonstrate the essay to my students, I compare Wole Soyinka's "Telephone Conversation" to Lenny Kravitz's "Mr Cab Driver" (which I realized would date the essay terribly in the eyes of my current students).

The analysis of poetry thus becomes not only a close-reading exercise, but also an exercise in justifying the student's perception of song lyrics as poetic. It's perhaps a bit of a stretch to do this exercise in a Language class, but my view tends to be that any understanding of figurative language and an ability to explicate it is helpful to them regardless.

In a similar vein, the Favorite Poem Project illustrates to students that poetry is not an esoteric code, but that it still speaks to the "Everyman" who takes the time to appreciate it: people of all sorts, from students to soldiers to salespeople to singers and songwriters, have participated in the project, and their videos can be seen online. The site offers resources for teachers, including cross-disciplinary lesson plans.

Finally, having students compose and perform poetry gives it a new rhetorical twist. Poetry slams are gaining popularity in high schools (search YouTube for dozens of examples of students performing their own poetry to schoolwide audiences). Taylor Mali, a slam poet who is a teacher in his other life, creates poems that are in themselves excellent examples of how poetry can also be argument. Teachers tend to be especially fond of his hard-hitting "What Teachers Make."


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