We Murder to Dissect – How to Approach a Poem Without Killing It

I don’t know whether it’s a by-product of the way we teachpoetry – where there’s always so much to do and so little time – or whether it ‘twas ever thus. Either way, many students seem to approach poetry like they are trying to solve a puzzle. To them, a poem is more like a riddle to be solved or explained away rather than something to be enjoyed or savoured.

It may be a stretch to expect young people to independently appreciate the aesthetic pleasures of a lyric or bask in the sensual delights of metrical verse, but I think we should at least try to stop them treating poetry like Sudoku or seeing poems as codes to be cracked. The problem – the tension, the ambiguity, the unexplainable – is the point of the poem. Students need to learn how to accept that which evades ordinary language is part of the pleasure of poetry. It is poetry.

I’m currently reading Picnic Comma Lightening by Laurence Scott, a great read about the impact of digital culture on meaning in the modern world. Early on, Scott recounts the experiences of a group of professors who start noticing an increasing number of their students referring to non-fiction in their essays as novels. Scott attributes this collapse in understanding of generic boundaries to the digital age where everything is a‘story’.

Poems are not novels, of course, and whilst narrative poems share similarities with fiction they are not the same as stories found in books. Poetry is distinct from prose and we should help students to see, hear and feel these distinctions, particularly if it’s true that the notion of genre really is becoming less familiar and intuitive to younger generations. Teaching poetry not only requires a shift in pedagogy, but a shift in mindset. This we can model.

Key stage three is fertile ground to inculcate this aesthetic apprenticeship. We should fight the urge to analyse everything to within an inch of its life and better model the art of appreciation, sympathy and the subtle thinking processes involved in approaching a new poem afresh. We want the poem work its magic before we look at how it’s all achieved – to what lies under the hood! It’s tempting to focus on meaning (we are meaning-making creatures) but we also need to learn how to be comfortable with uncertainty and reconcile ourselves to different ways of seeing.

In short, we need to learn how to notice.

Over the years, I’ve settled on an approach to introducing a new poem that tries to foster this art of observation – of patterns, tensions and the unusual. It works just as well with younger students as older students, albeit with some tailoring to reflect relative experience and ability. It’s not reducible to a pithy acronym. Rather, it’s a loose set of questions that take students from the discombobulation of initial reading to the beginnings of what it means to enjoy the forming of meaning out of patterns of images and sounds.

Before I get to the questions, I like students to get a sense of the poem.

I read the poem first.

Students then read it silently to themselves.

They read it again, identifying any words or phrases they don’t know.

I explain all those that are crucial, usually as I have anticipated but not always.

Students then take turns reading lines, hearing the poem in their own voice.

We repeat until fluency emerges and they can hear any rhythm or rhyme.

I then get students to write down things they notice – not explain, but notice. This generates anything from comments about tone, perspective and emotions to statements about line lengths, rhyming patterns, recurring words and so on. Pretty much anything is valid here.

Students next choose a couple of observations and frame them as questions – there are alternate lines that rhyme becomes why does every other line rhyme? The last stanza is shorter than the others becomes why is the last stanza shorter than the others?

The following 10 questions help to deepen their understanding and build meaning:

  1. Who is speaking in the poem? To whom? What is their perspective?What is the tone of the voice? How do you know?
  2. What is the story or set up? Does it describe an event (narrative), recount an exchange (dramatic) or is it more reflective and observational (lyric)?
  3. What kind of language is used- formal, colloquial, poetic? What kinds of words -abstract, concrete, technical? Is the language consistent with the voice and/or story?
  4. How does the poet use visual elements? Is there any striking or unsettling imagery? Are there patterns, repetitions or contrasts?
  5. How does the poet use aural elements? Are there any striking sound effects? Do the sounds complement or contrast the images?
  6. How does the poet structure the poem? Are there interesting contrasts? Patterns? Developments? Changes in tone? How does the poem begin and end? Do they relate?
  7. How does the poet use rhythm and rhyme? Is it regular or irregular? Are there any heavy or light stresses?  How do they relate to the meaning and tone?
  8. How is punctuation used in the poem? Do lines run on or are they end-stopped? Are there any pauses or gaps? Would changes in punctuation alter the meaning or tone?
  9. Are there any irregularities in the poem? How does it relate to other elements?
  10. What is the relationship between the title and the poem as a whole? Does it anchor the meaning or seem to work against it? Why?

At this point I go back to the questions we asked ourselves earlier and more often than not we are in a better position to start answering them.

Well, most of the time!

I hope this was useful – thanks for reading.

Published by Phil Stock

Deputy Headteacher, Teaching, learning and assessment. Interested in education, spending time with my family and running - all views are my own. @joeybagstock

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: