I hate poetry.
Of course that isn’t true.
But it would be equally untrue if I were to say I love poetry.
The reason both these statements are untrue is because they are huge, sweeping statements. Poetry, like music, movies, books, art, theatre, television and chocolates runs the gamut from the great (strawberry creams) to the woeful (coffee creams). I love some poetry. In fact, I love lots of poetry. But there’s some poetry I plain dislike. This is the first thing I discuss when teaching poetry: that it is a matter of taste. People don’t say “I hate music”; they say “I hate Kula Shaker”. They might hate The Voice and Top Gear and Hollyoaks, but that doesn’t mean they hate television. So if a pupil says “I don’t like poetry”, I suggest that what they mean is “I don’t like any of the poetry I’ve read to this point in my life”. And I tell them that I think that will change.
Such preamble out of the way, I always ask my pupils this simple question before studying poetry with them for the first time:
What is poetry?
Don’t read ahead yet. Just stop here and answer the question. Commit to a definition. Take as long as you need. Write it down if you want, but I want you to have a definition. If you don’t want to write it down, say it aloud. Poetry is…
Was that surprisingly hard to do? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe you’ve thought about having a clear definition before. But if you haven’t, that might have taken a little bit of thought or refinement. Certainly, it seems a difficult question for pupils to answer. In fact, for many of us, it’s one of those things that we assume we know the answer to, but perhaps we don’t. Psychologist Rebecca Lawson explored this illusion of knowledge when she asked people to draw something very simple, something we should all be familiar with: bicycles. She found that, despite such familiarity, most people can’t draw a bike or even pick one out in a line-up of drawings.
When I ask pupils to answer the question “What is poetry?”, I get all sorts of answers, some vague, some pertinent: it rhymes, it doesn’t have to rhyme, it’s a way of showing emotions, it tells a story, it has a rhythm, it uses lines and verses, poems are short, etc.
Most of those answers might be true of some poems, but they never get anywhere near defining poetry. I spend a little time trying to falsify their answers: if poetry rhymes, does that mean this shop name is a poem?
If poems tell stories, is this a poem?
Eventually, we can all agree that we haven’t really defined what poetry is, so I suggest we need to understand what it is if we are going to study it.
And this is how I get pupils to define it.
I show them a range of differing texts – about 8 or 9 – and ask them to look at them and answer two questions:
- Is this a poem?
- Why/why not?
The thing I don’t tell them is that every one of the texts is a poem. I just ensure that each of them is so different from the next. I throw in seemingly impenetrable modernism from Gertrude Stein, a short three-word poem, a prose poem, some nonsense from Spike Milligan, some E.E. Cummings, and a few others. I make sure that each of the poems do different things – some have clear meanings, some are abstruse; some rhyme, some don’t; some are long, some are short; some have end-stopped lines, some use enjambment; some are narrative, some present ideas or feelings.
For as long as I’ve been doing this task with classes, the pupils have always responded that they are certain that some of the texts are poems and they are adamant that others aren’t. They are also often some that they are undecided on. Sometimes I let them remain undecided but ask them to explain why.
Once pupils have made their decisions, we go through each of the poems, one by one, together. We explore meanings and messages, highlight differences and look at the features, and I slowly reveal my trick: that they are all poems.
We then go back to the first question, with a further clause at the beginning:
If all of these are poems, what is poetry?
(In other words, what do they all have in common?)
Then, with some questioning, we arrive at a very simple definition. The wording tends to differ with each class, but it goes something like this:
Poetry uses words (or language) in different ways (without having to follow the rules of grammar), often using patterns, to create meanings.
It is, as I say, a really simple definition, but I think it unlocks poetry a little for pupils. From here, we might actually apply this definition by giving pupils an opportunity to create poems such as humuments, blackout poetry or cutout poetry. I find this is quite efficient as it doesn’t rely on pupils trying to write something from scratch and gives them an opportunity to produce a poem by using words that are already in front of them and to apply the definition by using those words in different ways (breaking rules) to create new meanings.
I’ve always found this a simple but effective way to introduce poetry.
The following is copied and pasted directly from Wikipedia:
Great chain of being in education
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
The great chain of being in education is a strict, hierarchical structure of all matter and life in the education sector, believed to have been decreed by the Secretary of State for Education. The chain starts from the Secretary of State and progresses downward to the HMCI, HMIs, LEAs, CEOs of MATs, executive headteachers, headteachers, SLT members, middle leaders, and right down to teachers and other minerals.
The chain of being is composed of a great number of hierarchical links, from the most basic and foundational elements (classroom teachers) up through the very highest perfection, in other words, Secretary of State for Education.
The Secretary of State sits at the top of the chain, and beneath them sit the HMCI, both existing wholly in spirit form. Earthly flesh is fallible and ever-changing, mutable, as can be noted by teacher retention figures. Spirit, however, is unchanging and permanent. This sense of permanence is crucial to understanding this conception of reality. It is generally impossible for an object in the hierarchy to have a voice that is heard by, or above, those higher up the chain.
In the natural order, teachers are at the bottom of the chain; they possess only the attribute of existence. Each link succeeding upward contains the positive attributes of the previous link and adds at least one other. Teachers possess only existence; the next link up is middle leaders who possess some power and existence. Elements further up the chain add more power still, as well as a more amplified voice in the education debate.
Natural science 
The basic idea of a ranking of the education system’s organisms goes back to Aristotle. He classified education’s elements in relation to a linear “Ladder of Life”, placing them according to complexity of structure and function so that higher organisms showed greater power, autonomy and trust.
Aristotle’s concept of higher and lower organisms in education was taken up by natural philosophers during the Scholastic period to form the basis of the Scala Naturae Educatio. The scala allowed for an ordering of beings, thus forming a basis for classification where each kind of leader, teacher and mineral could be slotted into place. In medieval times, the great chain was seen as a God-given ordering: Secretary of State at the top, teachers at the bottom, every grade of creature in its place.
Scala natural educatio and the proposed College of Teaching 
In May 2012, a cross-party education committee gave impetus to the idea of a new “member-driven” Royal College of Teaching. A consultation was launched in December 2014, after the Secretary of State for Education expressed their support for the college. The consultation report stated that:
“It will be led by teachers, enabling the teaching profession to take responsibility for its professional destiny, set its own aspirational standards and help teachers to challenge themselves to be ever better for those they serve.”
A website was launched too, stating that:
“The College of Teaching is an independent, evidence-led, member-driven body run by teachers for teachers in order to best meet the needs of learners.”
The idea of classroom teachers running their own college, however, is in direct contravention of the great chain of being in education, and despite the claims of the promotional materials and consultation, it was considered blasphemous for the college to put a classroom teacher in charge of its operation. As ever, the great chain of education being and the natural order took over and a CEO was appointed from higher up the chain. It was considered that, as this CEO already has power and a voice in education, it was probably best to amplify that, rather than allow a classroom teacher to speak for their profession. Ultimately, it was considered too much to ask.
See also