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.