Poetry is perhaps the most difficult of all literary forms to teach. Primarily due to a lack of exposure, children often view poetry as a precocious, trumped-up, and therefore ingenuine form of writing. The teacher becomes aware all too quickly that poetry is, in fact, an alien mode of expression for many. Her primary objective in teaching the genre then is to make poetry somehow accessible to her students.
Traditionally the vocabulary of poetry has been taught in a vacuum. That is, alien words are presented in a didactic manner which inevitably destroys the student’s spontaneous emotional reaction or discovery that is prerequisite to enjoying and understanding poetry. The teacher faces a dilemma. She cannot overlook the vocabulary of poetry. An awareness of the devices which define the genre is essential. Yet individual “discoveries” of poetic devices, given a class size of twenty, is difficult. Teachers of large groups cannot consistently and effectively engage students in a dialogue of sharing and discovery when introducing something new. Often teachers have no idea from what framework the individual student is starting. In engaging this new or alien form of writing—poetry—the class needs a unifying experience, a common denominator which will invite reaction, discussion, and finally discovery.
It stands to reason that poetry, which is generally ignored by today’s visual and auditory oriented society, could be more easily approached, understood, and judged if it were introduced through a natural coupling with a visual or auditory mode of expression. Teachers often introduce poetry via popular song lyrics. This provides students with a familiar framework which facilitates an introduction to the genre of poetry.
This unit proposes that a visual mode of expression could also be employed effectively when approaching poetry. Poetry and paintings lend themselves quite naturally to comparative study, for the artist in both cases “sees” the world; observation of detail, and the enjoyment of the meaning of detail, are inherent characteristics of the process of poet and artist alike.
Paintings, a familiar mode of expression, allow students an emotional reaction, while poetry (unfamiliar) often does not. Classroom experience indicates that individual responses to paintings are readily forthcoming and real. They are fresh, honest, and natural. This, then, is where the learning process can begin.
Once a student has reacted emotionally to a painting, the next level of understanding may be approached. This is the why or how of the artist. It is at this point that vocabulary, which is comparable to that used for poetry,is introduced. To put it simply, the teacher begins with paintings, and transfers the beginnings of understanding of this familiar mode of expression to the alien expression, poetry.
This unit is created with a ninth grade advanced English class in mind; it was in such a class that initial experiments of this nature were conducted, and met with some success. Presumably this method could be modified for use with other levels and/or grades.
A comparative vocabulary for poetry and paintings has been developed. Topics for lesson plans for the concurrent study of paintings and poetry deal with such terms as: mood, metaphor/symbol, pattern. Terms are introduced via the visual mode of expression, and then transferred to the written. Student understanding of each idea should be such that, as a final step, the student becomes artist/poet. That is, students could use these devices for the creation of their own forms of expression, visual and written. These art forms would be the result of their intellectual and emotional involvement with ideas and discoveries associated with paintings and poetry.