Tinkering with Teaching Poetry

by Mr. Sheehy

Sometimes the things you love the most can be the most difficult things to teach. I know folks claim that enthusiasm is a key aspect of teaching, and I am convinced they are right for the most part; but when you really love something, and your students essentially hate it, it’s not easy to settle for the middle ground.

I love poetry. I am no poetry genius, I must affirm–I get confused to the point of mystification with about half the poems I read–but that does not push me away from poetry. I also have read a lot of stories I didn’t understand at all, not to mention essays and articles in magazines, but I don’t give up on reading those genres just because I don’t understand some things. If that were a way to reason, who would read a novel after encountering James Joyce? A few of you, but not many (and not me).

Last year I began sharing a poem a day with my freshmen and sophomore students. Some days I have them circle the desks and we dive into a poem for 30 minutes or an hour. That process is usually fruitful, both because the diving in and digging makes the eventual insight that much more rewarding, and because I save those moments for poems I know they will particularly like. I get great results from that in-depth pursuit of “Still I Rise” and “A Negro Speaks of Rivers” and “Unknown Citizen.”

But most days I do not have available the kind of time that it takes to appreciate a poem on such a level. Recently I read with my sophomores “Through a Glass Eye, Lightly” by Carolyn Kizer. It begins by setting up a stark contrast:

In the laboratory waiting room
containing
one television actor with a teary face
trying a contact lens;
two muscular victims of industrial accidents;
several vain women—I was one of them—
came Deborah, four, to pick up her glass eye.

I began our brief conversation by asking a typical question: “Who is the speaker?” It is a place I almost always start, because once that point is clarified, much falls into place. A few students soon mentioned that the speaker was a vain woman. They picked out the grammatical structure and identified her easily–that was good. Next, though, I asked where the woman was.

Silence.

I told them to look in the first stanza.

Silence.

I told them that it almost sounded like the beginning of a joke: a TV actor, two industrial accident vicitims, several vain women, and a girl getting a glass eye were sitting in a _______ what?

Nothing.

I reminded them that they would not find the answer by staring at me, or the wall, or the desk. They’d need to look at the poem.

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A few eyes moved sheepishly to their papers, and still, no response. Eyes looking a particular direction sometimes correlates with insightful thinking, but correlation is clearly different than causation, no?

Eventually someone offered something–that they were in the emergency room?–and I desperately latched on to it and used it to give more hints, allowing me to guide the ideas until someone mercifully gave the answer I was looking for (a place where there’s some plastic surgery?). Soon after they got it I said something final–who knows now what it was–and we mercifully moved on to something else.

Other days I present a poem I find funny or delightful, say something from Aaron Belz, a poet I recently discovered and have been enjoying thoroughly. I’ll read the poem with students and they’ll look at me like, “Yeah? And you’re reading this to me because?” And I’ll realize that they didn’t get the joke, or that they weren’t listening, or that they have completely different senses of humor than I do. Whatever the case, I’ll now be in the awkward position of having either to explain what is funny or to collect the poem when no one in the room understands why I ever handed it out. The next time around I try to set up the joke more cautiously, to turn students’ attention to what will be funny; when they too react without giggles, I wonder if I’m the one who is weird.

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This cannot be a good way to instill a love of poetry into my students–beginning class by having them not comprehend a poem. If I weren’t careful, this could all be quite discouraging.

Yet for me teaching continues to be a profession of tinkering. Tweak this thing here, adjust that gadget over there, redesign that device on top. I am convinced the idea of sharing a poem a day with my students is a good one, and I am convinced I can teach practically half of my curriculum by simply exploring poetry; yet now that I have the poem a day installed, the program needs a few updates. With the first quarter of school gone by this year, perhaps I can spend a few moments designing Poem a Day 2.0. I’m sure it will be better.

That first version was just Beta anyway.

Thanks for reading.

Photo credit: Caution Love on Flickr by: SeenyaRita

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