Why Teach Poetry
Poetry is words dancing. Children of all ages love the music in language. We hear it in schoolyard chants and playful rhymes. Teenagers are inevitably drawn to popular music and lyrics. Many find their identity and their tribe through music and lyrics which speaks for them.
But most secondary teachers shy away from trying to guide students into writing poetry. Even when they are required to study the poetry of others. This is a shame because the results can be startling, and the time needed to set up and complete pieces of poetry are relatively small compared with other writing forms.
Through the teaching of poetry writing, teachers have a chance to introduce students to metaphor, simile, abstraction in many colours. They also have the opportunity to teach teenagers to listen to their writing, to hear rhythm, repetition, assonance, beat, emphasis and syllables. Crafting poetry teaches nuance, subtlety, ambiguity, economy and balance. Students discover the value in revisiting and editing their words.
Poetry is easily shared and displayed, wonderful to read aloud, and for less able, less confident English students, often the work they feel most proud of.
PART 1: Introducing metaphors
If you have time, it is wonderful to start this short unit by playing for students one or two favourite songs where the lyrics illustrate beautifully the power of metaphors.
We suggest “No-one is to Blame by Howard Jones”, but there are many equally accessible:
NO ONE IS TO BLAME Howard Jones
You can look at the menu but you just can’t eat You can feel the cushions but you can’t have a seat You can dip your foot in the pool but you can’t have a swim You can feel the punishment but you can’t commit the sin
And you want her and she wants you We want everyone And you want her and she wants you No one, no one, no one ever is to blame
You can build a mansion but you just can’t live in it You’re the fastest runner but you’re not allowed to win Some break the rules And live to count the cost The insecurity is the thing that won’t get lost
You can see the summit but you can’t reach it
It’s the last piece of the puzzle but you just can’t make it fit
Doctor says you’re cured but you still feel the pain
Aspirations in the clouds but your hopes go down the drain
BRAINSTORMING: a metaphor chart
Hand out a sheet or have students open a document you have prepared (See below). Explain that you are giving them 10-15 minutes to try to fill in the chart. Ask them to avoid over-thinking. Just go with what comes to mind. Leave a blank and return to any over which they feel blocked. While they do this, it is fun for you as leader to attempt your own on the board/screen.
As students work through this first stage, it is worth side-coaching several points. Where students say they can’t think of anything, press them to put something because they can always change it later. You might also like them to quietly ask a friend what they think. Sometimes a friend who knows the student well can have a moment of delightful inspiration.
Secondly, keep reiterating that they should try for detail, and try for accuracy. There is a big difference between saying I would be an old car, and saying, I would be a mustard-coloured beetle VW with a dented front. A big difference between saying, I would be a dog, and writing, I would be a long-eared ginger beagle.
PART 2: drafting the poem
With their charts complete, all that is left is for them to assemble a poem. The crafting skills become their choices, in terms of the order, omissions, and importantly those metaphors they select to embellish. They get to add, change, refine.
It can be useful to show them one or two completed examples. Here are two created by this process by students aged 13 and 15.
I am a penguin - on land, clumsy & comical
But into the icy water I can glide like a ray
I am a banana - easy to handle, not too straight.
I am the old cane rocker in the corner -
Comfy, dependable, don’t mind the cracks
They're part of my charm.
I'm Daffy Duck - Seriously dish-picable.
Like a Peppermint Aero,
It's the bubbles that make the difference.
Like an egg whisk,
Simplicity can be full of surprises.
I am an island -
Point out to students that some repetition is strong, but too much repetition becomes boring and predictable. This is the Goldilocks enigma of crafting poetry. Show them that beginnings and ends are important. In this example, there is a gentle connection between penguin, water and the island we return to. Nicely done. Ending with Daffy Duck just wouldn’t work as well. Finally, use the examples to demonstrate that not every metaphor needs expanding or explaining. But some surely delight the reader in the ways they do.
We enter the mind of a dim mortal
All but a few emotions dusty through disuse
Images flood the dark cave
Mounted on a dragon’s back
Pillaging unconquered skies
Adventuring in forgotten realms
A tense form ready to unleash
A watch in tireless patience keep
An assassin’s blade poised to serve
A knight’s sword proud to lead
A fox glimpsed between shadows
A lioness strutting in plain view
A shackled prisoner, an executioner’s play
A striking cobra
A grazing sheep
A cornered thief
A charging bull
A dying flame
The incessant sun
An empty husk, a mother’s womb
This example is quite a powerful piece, and it was crafted and redrafted over several weeks by a 15-year-old boy. Which makes some of his word choices, some of his metaphors all the more astonishing. Show students the clever use of the word “dim” followed by “dark”. The double-meaning of “dim” is powerful in a school context. This is a student who has never believed he was any good at English. With his teacher’s encouragement and support, this poem became a watershed for this student who went on with English and literature studies with a passion.
Metaphors say more in a handful of words than any prosaic explanation ever can. That is their power. Introducing students to the power of language is rewarding and when you get teenagers playing with language you can unlock surprising results. Often, the students are surprised at their own creations.