Mary Lou L. Narowski
I teach poetry for this "giant" of an Eighth Grade student who became so angry one day, he punched the classroom door, broke the glass, and then sat down and wrote the most heart-wrenching love poem inside his drawing of a tear. I teach poetry for the girl who "hates me and doesn't care what I think" but whose power of word choice as she relates what life's like on the streets, is so gripping, it's painful and almost beyond belief. I teach poetry for the student who refuses to write a single line or wouldn't consider participating in a classroom oral presentation, but who stood during our poetry slam and got a roaring outburst of approval. I teach poetry for the chance to hear students say, "That's cool. I like the way it sounds" or "I know how that feels."
I also teach poetry because
I have to. I have to
introduce poetic device and figurative language, poetic form, rhythm, rhyme, and meter and therein lies my dilemma. How do I safeguard my students' inherit willingness to express their ideas about love and crisis in moments of intensity, passion, and challenge, against the exposure to the dry and sometimes rigid and technical mechanics of poetry? How do I safeguard against turning poetry into a kind of a scavenger hunt or parlor game of "find the metaphor, count the beats, or follow the form," and risk having them "zone out."
As a teacher, I begin our formal discussion of poetry, designated by the district for introduction during the third marking period, and I often hear moans and groans. Why, I ask myself? In honesty, my students might say they are afraid of poetry because they don't know how to read it or because they have this sense that poetry holds some cryptic message, a kind of tarot card, psychic reading, fortune cookie mystery that eludes them and frustration sets in immediately. It's not always written in complete thoughts so they have to figure out what the author intended to say. Not always an easy task for them. They don't want to play detective. They just want to talk about themselves. They want to write poetry to express their feelings about what's happening in their lives. They like poetry when it's easy. They don't want rules or form or analysis. They want to be in charge of something in their lives.
One thing my students have in abundance is emotional experiences, often ones that rob the innocence of their youth. Their lives are filled with sarcasm and irony. Why would they want to spend time analyzing poetry when their very survival is sometimes in question? Yet,
I have to
teach poetry. If I am to give them all that they need to understand poetry, then, all of the standard, codified elements must be introduced and incorporated but their experiences must be honored. Again, my basic dilemma. It will be imperative that I choose poems wisely; ones in which emotional sound sense is brought to light through discussion and discovery; ones in which prosody is strong, evident, and understandable; and ones that might even break the rules so my kids can identify with them.
The students I instruct live in a world without much structure, without rules, and without reflection. They live in the here and now. They often feel cornered by such constraints and the off button is immediately pressed. They are not very patient. Inner city life is scary and uncertain. The thing they
have in abundance in their lives is sound, from the loud and harsh, to the dead of silence, and not much of the gentle and soothing. Talking, they lack not this ability! Nor do they lack the rhythm and beat of music. Sound plays an integral part in their lives. It exists in the fabric of their beings.
This is also true in poetry. Sound is the thread that makes up the cloth of poetry. The role that the sounds of words play in the finished product is undeniable. Yet my students are often unaware of this sound sense because these lyrical properties are not completely visible, understandable, or audible to them. Poets use sound devices to create visual images and emotional responses and it is the sound these devices express which reinforce or clarify those images and responses. My students use this sound sense naturally but do not pay much attention to these features and it is here that the actual awareness of the sound mechanics and emotional effects of those sounds of poetry and the lives of my students intersect. Sound foregrounds poetry and is the doorway to our sense of understanding. These elements are already highlighted in our curriculum as we study narration. It is this awareness of sound and image as tone that must be highlighted as we study poetry to encourage its appreciation. I will use these ingredients as my main consideration for an objective within this unit.