Teaching Poetry and Its Emotional Effects

08 Mar

In her chapter on “Teaching Poetry” in Teaching Literature, Elaine Showalter offers a number of variety of methods and approaches to teaching poetry in the literature classroom, asserting that, “Teaching poetry offers the literature instructor some of the most fundamental, immediate, active, even physical ways to engage students in learning” (62). After providing a brief background on twentieth-century approaches to academic poetics (including a rather bleak assessment of the effects of New Criticism), Showalter then moves on to discussing a variety of helpful approaches to poetry instruction.

As a part of a WSU Composition Programme curriculum initiative in the summer of 2014, I (along with several other GTAs) worked with a panel, consisting of the Director of Composition and senior composition instructors, to develop new, instructor-specific approaches to teaching composition. Although I was unfamiliar with Showalter’s book at the time, I nevertheless ended up employing some of the methods and approaches she discusses.

Showalter is correct when she observes that using a Poetics approach can be difficult for students “because it comes with a specialized technical language” (65). That said, I believe that some degree of instruction in poetics is necessary. Even with the limited amount of poetry that I use in my composition curriculum, I have encountered student confusion like that mentioned by Jonathan Arac, where ignorance of poetics makes poetry “seem like arbitrary magic rather than a codified technology of verbal power” (65). Presented with a bewildering (not to say infinite) array of potential poetical forms, students may (and will) justly ask, “What is a poem, then?” Marjorie Perloff’s response–that poetry “foregrounds language, in its complexity… and, especially, relatedness” is a good one, but still runs the risk of being rather too abstract for the average undergraduate to grasp readily (65).

Here, I would defer to the advice of Scholes as both practical and successful, to wit: “encourage students to start with the poets and poems who are most directly meaningful to them” (64). The key word being ‘start’, for Showalter observes that this should be a jumping-off point “to more complex forms and historically-distant works” (64). I have found that this approach has been particularly useful in my own instruction. Each semester, I provide students with a list of fifteen ‘approved’ poems from which they may choose any one, although they must read them all. For the accesibility of an undergraduate, non-English major audience, they range from the beginning of the Romantic period up to the modern day, including canonically familiar works (Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey”) and less well-known (but still academically interesting) pieces (St. Vincent Millay’s “Justice Denied in Massachusetts”). All of these works are hortatory at some level, and each appeals to some sense of strong emotion on the part of the reader.

I have found that students often have an immediate reaction to even the most abstract poetry, although they lack the poetical vocabulary necessary to describe the causes of their response. Even students who ‘hate poetry’ typically gravitate towards the calls to action of Millay, Wilfred Owen, or Langston Hughes, and asking them to describe their reactions is an excellent way to get into discussion of formal poetics: “‘Flow’? You seem to be describing ‘rhythm’, ‘tempo’, and ‘meter’–let’s talk about that.” In my experience, it is not that students lack anything to say, or are afraid to speak about poetry–rather, the case seems to be that they are afraid of not being able to talk about the poetical causes of why they feel the way they do. And so, using familiar poetry and their own emotional responses as a way of opening up poetics is both empowering and educational: something for which most students are profoundly grateful, as it opens the door to appreciating (personally) and discussing (communally) more complex works.

That said, using emotionally-engaging poetry is not without its complexities, as Showalter rightly observes when she mentions the poetry of Sylvia Plath. The focus upon suicidal thoughts, tendendies, and acts in The Bell Jar can be disturbing for students who might not expect ‘poetry’–a land of whimsy and romance, in their minds–to plumb the depths of despair, or other darker emotions yet. There are countless works of poetry that explore the capacity of human beings to imagine, engage with, summon, and deploy emotions and sensibilities which, in our own particular culture and moment, might be provocative or even abhorrent. Awareness of this can teach us a great deal about the work and about our the systems which incline us to respond as we do.

This is not to say that educators should shrink from the task. As such works demonstrate a vital part of the human experience, the liberal education afforded by University study can and should expose to students works of importance and merit, even when those works are disturbing, disruptive, or challenging. Indeed, it is usually the most disturbing and disruptive works which are the most enlightening, and the discussions of which are most intellectually generative. Certainly students in America might find Kipling’s “Ulster” to be an approachable (if somewhat opaque) work, but in Ireland in the 1980s, it would have had quite a different reception; and, at the time of its publication, still another. The poem’s controversial nature is something which adds to its importance as an object of study. It is in the conflicts and the provocations that what matters to the reader and society is briefly exposed and opened to enquiry.

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