Poetry area edited
by Dr Nicole King
Teaching Poetry home page
Welcome to the Poetry pages
This section of the website offers support and ideas to colleagues who are responsible for teaching poetry. These pages will guide you to targeted resources elsewhere on this site and to selected poetry and multi-media resources around the web.
Poetry in the curriculum
Poets are a mainstay of the HE curriculum in English. Spanning the centuries from Milton, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Blake, Wordsworth, Rossetti, Burns, Auden, and Eliot, to Phillip Larkin, Wendy Cope, Seamus Heaney, Gillian Clarke, Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze, Andrew Motion, Jackie Kay and Carol Ann Duffy, these poets and many others of the grand occasion and the everyday have pride of place in many English literature and Creative Writing degree programmes in the UK.
When taught well, poetry leads to terrific seminars and well-attended lectures, engaged on-line discussions and dynamic student work. Studying poetry can truly open up the subject of English for some students. By paying attention to how craft, structure, sound and tempo work dynamically in a successful poem, poetry organically connects ‘literature’ to the study of Creative Writing and language. But poetry isn’t well-loved by everyone.
The challenge of poetry
Lecturers can find poetry to be a tricky subject to teach and one which their students are sometimes, literally, frightened of. Teaching poetry remains a tough assignment for many seasoned and early career lecturers alike. Like ‘theory’, poetry suffers from its reputation for ‘being difficult’ to learn and to teach. But, it is possible to banish feelings of inadequacy and convince students of poetry’s pleasant challenges.
The lure of poetry
Poetry is probably quite familiar to many students who will have studied it at A Level and at school. Even so, especially in the first year, they may not admit to it or freely discuss poetry’s formal attributes, like metre, rhythm, and verse. It’s more likely that they will exchange opinions about beats, rhymes and lyrics in contemporary music or spoken word performances and most likely that they will do so outside of class or lecture. The mixed response poetry often receives from students does not change the fact that among ‘phobic’ poetry students lurk one or more experts in poetic speech and construction. It is possible to tap into students’ enthusiasm for and frequently their production of music (especially hip-hop and other popular forms) as a classroom or lecture hall strategy. Connect students’ expertise and confidence with music-making and music appreciation to the project of understanding, interpreting and enjoying poetry on the written page and the history of poetry as an oral form.
This does not mean spoon-feed students a diet comprised solely of contemporary poets. That would be short-sighted and pedagogically suspect. Rather, involve students in the process of making links between contemporary poetic forms and the poetic elements of their everyday lives. This is an exercise that can then be extended to the forms and periods of literature in earlier epochs relevant to any particular poetry module.
Why isn’t poetry a novel?
Whilst lecturers may dutifully include poetry in syllabi and exam paper options, frequently they don’t have a lot of strategies for counter-acting students disappointment (and anxiety) – however misplaced – that poetry is not a narrative form they find immediately familiar, like a novel or a film. Here again, bringing the contemporary world into the classroom can pay dividends. More important, perhaps is to emphasise poetry’s particularities.
Gary Snapper, editor of English Drama Media argues that ‘Students who do not experience the joy of poetry in performance, hear the voices of poets talking about poetry, discuss its origins and its role in society, make connections between ‘their’ poetry and ‘school’ poetry, or take part in the act of writing it, are less likely to understand its purposes, its effects, its techniques, its relationship to life, and are ultimately less likely to enjoy it.’ (EDM, Feb 2009, Issue 13, pp.2-3). Snapper is referring to A Level students but the circumstances he describes are more than applicable to undergraduate contexts. The idea then is to make space in the classrooms for poetry to be heard, to be placed in historical context, to be connected, in some way to students’ lives, whether the poem was written in 1710 or 2010.
To take this theme further would mean to provide students with space and guidance to explore and analyse where poetry does appear in their lives away from university and college as not all students will be actively creating poetry or music in their own time. Even if a lecturer has very limited time, listening to a poem or a poet in seminar or in lecture via The Poetry Archive or PennSound can help the process enormously. Students can be encouraged to explore these resources on their own too.