“I hate poems”: introducing poetry

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.

Rebbeca Lawson - The Science of Cycology
Questions from Rebecca Lawson’s ‘The Science of Cycology’

 

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?

Screen-shot-2015-11-05-at-12.46.53-PM

If poems tell stories, is this a poem?

of-mice-and-men-book

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:

  1. Is this a poem?
  2. 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.

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13 thoughts on ““I hate poems”: introducing poetry”

  1. Poetry is,
    More difficult,
    Than prose;
    Less space,
    Dense meaning.

    Disappointment lurks,
    In every stanza;
    Revealed failure,
    In every line.

    No place to hide:
    Poetry is Art,
    And Art takes…….

    No prisoners.

  2. Thanks for this! As I said in my ResearchED talk; being a student who could analyse literature I’d always felt a little ashamed for not connecting with the work. So I quietly held the feeling that there was something wrong with my tastes which, ultimately, would let me down when I reached the next level of education, and became surrounded by people of a higher social class. So a teacher making it explicit that connection to literature and poetry is a matter of taste (no right or wrong, but something we can each uniquely explore if we choose to) would have really helped. Thanks for the work you do with your students.

  3. Love the general approach to this – I think I’ll try it – though not sure your definition feels very clear to me.

    Personally, I find this a useful definition for my Year 6 children:

    “Poetry is where language is used for its look, sound or feel in addition to, or instead of its literal meaning.”

    I derived this from a popular online definition which refers to language in poetry being used for its ‘aesthetic and evocative qualities’. This seems to me the clearest and most encompassing definition I can think of, though that might just be me.

    1. Hmm. I disagree. Your definition encompasses advertising slogans, persuasive speeches, etc. This is why I include non-examples to discount what isn’t poetry. Poetry has to be about doing something different with words, not having to adhere to rules and using patterns.

      I actually disagree when a pupil said poetry always uses patterns, and tried to present non-examples, but the pupil managed to disprove every one as a non-example.

      1. Ok… but so does your definition doesn’t it…?! What slogans wouldn’t be poetry under your description…? I do rate the phrase “to create meaning” at the end of your definition, as I almost thought it could imply that I could simply jumble up the words in a sentence and it would count as poetry.

        What if you rephrased things to be “without following the normal rules of grammar”, and actually made that an essential characteristic…? I just feel that your definition might also be slightly too vague – but then maybe that’s why we really struggle with poetry… 🙂

      2. Actually – having played around with several other possibilities – I’m increasingly growing to love your definition. I did try the following:

        “Poetry is where either the literal meaning of words, or the rules of grammar are suspended, but things still make sense.” However this could simply describe me trying to speak French to a native speaker.

        Perhaps there really is something essential about having some kind of pattern, I recall that Stephen Fry (in his, “The Ode Less Travelled”) certainly thought that a metric pattern had to be present or else “what could poetry be…?” This would manage to exclude brief slogans. Perhaps just ANY kind of pattern would do, whether metric, alliterative, rhyming, repeated words, phrasing…. whatever.

        So how about this: “Poetry is patterned literature, where either the literal meaning of words, or the rules of grammar are suspended, but things still make sense…?”

        If this still doesn’t work, then, I’ll be honest, I’m now with you!

      3. Sorry for being a pest – but I think I’ve got it! 😉

        “Poetry is where language makes better sense due to its look, sound or feel, in the absence of either literal meaning or grammatical rules.”

        I think we just have to accept that slogans are “Poetic Soundbites”!

        Thanks for this – I’ve found the whole thing inspiring.

  4. Thank you sir, inspiring indeed.
    May I say that poetry could also be a song of the heart ? ,thereby having no rigid rules.

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