Poetry – Have I been teaching it all wrong for 18 years?

Rediscovering the reading of poetry aloud

T.S. Eliot - Eliot's verse is known for its musical qualities which come alive when read aloud. (Public domain image.)

T.S. Eliot – Eliot’s verse is known for its musical qualities which come alive when read aloud. (Public domain image.)

There are few things more dispiriting for an English teacher to hear than ‘I don’t like poetry’, but it can be an all too familiar refrain; perhaps more understandable – though not a view I share – is the complaint of loathing the analysis of poetry. Just what is that we are doing to poetry that puts students off so much? What can teachers do to make the experience of poetry more enriching?

Complaints about the teaching of poetry are not new, nor is the feeling that there is ‘something’ wrong with the teaching of poetry in school. For those – like me – raised on a combination of Practical Criticism, the influence of Leavis and Geoff Woods’ Cambridge Poetry Workshop type teaching, the grumble was a lack of focus on form, a dehistoricised understanding of literature and all poems ending up as an oxymoronic, deeply paradoxical ambiguous meditation on human fallibility. And didn’t my own university teachers take great delight in proving just how wrong all of my own school experiences had been.

Today, the complaints are somewhat different. Many teachers balk at the thought of asking students to read unseen poetry (witness the grumblings about its re-introduction at GCSE five years ago) while changes to A level, which now includes a mandatory unseen element (hurrah for Gove for once!) have brought similar mutterings. My own experience would suggest that it’s a deep distrust of students that lies underneath such complaints. In short, teachers – particularly those lacking classroom experience – too often do not trust students to read and think for themselves. Teachers themselves too often dislike poetry; PGCE tutors have observed to me a real aversion to poetry amongst some trainees and increasingly we face a younger generation of teachers for whom poetry is most certainly not a source of pleasure.

Consequently, poetry must be ‘learnt’ through endless revision notes provided by the teacher, ‘key quotes’ (urgggh), box filling exercises and line-by-line analysis, generally controlled by the classroom teacher and often with a linguistic, rather than literary, approach to language. Of course, all of these have a role and wise teachers vary the diet but arguably they are the root cause of many pupil complaints, and, sadly, seem to have very little grasp of the nature of poetry and the ways in which response might be nurtured rather than controlled.

If truth be told, throughout my teaching career, I’ve rarely given a poem much more than a cursory glance before teaching it. I find that quite literally (to use the big educational theory) co-constructing meaning, working with a class, groups or individuals is the best way to make meaning of the poem for my students and for myself. I enjoy the thrill of learning as I teach, and students gain from the modelling of reading and thinking, a fresh reading of the poem in which they have shared. Of course, I approach the teaching of poetry with significant experience of reading poetry – this is not a vacuous conversation – but through such an approach, I’m also much more open to the perspectives of students when I don’t have a set agenda before the lesson, and teaching becomes a process of dialogue not dictation.

It is important, I have found, to give students time to read and think for themselves before talking,particularly at GCSE and beyond. In fact, the more time given to this the better, and I’ve noticed that this crucial stage is often rushed or overlooked by novice teachers. Initially, classes seem to have ‘finished’ these preparations within a few minutes, but given time, able students will soon want ten minutes or more to simply read and think. As students mature, I would suggest that quite simple questions for use during a personal reading of the poem are often the most productive way of elucidating meaning:

  • What do you think? Why?
  • What do you feel? Why?
  • What is this poem about?
  • How does it say it?
  • What changes seem to happen in the poem?
  • What strikes you?

These, along with a ‘Framework for Responding to Poetry’ (a worksheet I first encountered on my PGCE which I’ve adapted and refined over the years), seem to create the richest learning experiences. Meaning may be guided or probed by a teacher – let’s not suggest there is no power in the phrasing of a particular question – but by no means is it controlled.

Such approaches certainly help students appreciate the complexities of poetry, and help students to consider the suggestions of imagery. For those chasing grades (never a bad thing in this age of accountability) that classic A and A* skill of being able to appreciate and analyse or evaluative alternative meanings is utterly enhanced by this approach, with students invariably questioning each other’s views and reaching different conclusions.

But it was teaching Liz Lochhead’s poem ‘For my grandmother knitting’ that caused me to question my approach to an area I realised I’d neglected: the reading of poetry aloud and even memorizing poetry. Lochhead, who recently stepped down as the Makar (Scotland’s national poet) is a highly charismatic, engaging figure, who has done much to promote the role of poetry. A Vimeo clip of her talking about the importance of learning poets by heart set me thinking about this area.

Too often, reading poetry aloud is an area I’ve controlled, having been disappointed by times earlier in my career when students ‘messed around’ when given the opportunity to read a poem aloud. Dramatic approaches to the reading of poetry just don’t work, especially as students get older, though I’ve had some great experiences of teaching Robert Nicholson’s ‘Comrades: An Episode’ through drama. The danger, however, with such tasks is that they favour those with a predisposition for performance, and there’s the worry, too, that the performance becomes more important than the poem itself.

Watching Lochhead talk about reading poetry aloud, however, has encouraged me to try much simpler approaches. Simply try to think what the poet is saying and express that in your reading aloud. Don’t force it. Don’t be over dramatic. It’s a reading, not a dramatic monologue. But try to express the feelings beneath the poem. Oh, and please don’t bang desks or clap along to rhythms – this isn’t Auden’s ‘Night Mail’. Read the poetry aloud. Let the rhythm come naturally. Listen to your voice. Which words are leaping out? Practise this for ten minutes and try to remember some – do it from the heart and not simply by rote. Are there places you can now put your copy of the poem to one side? Work on your own or with a partner or a small group – it’s up to you and which will help you.

What’s my thinking about what’s happening? First of all, students are actually spending more time with the sound of the poem. Secondly, they’re starting to get a sense of the sounds in their own mouths and using their own voices. It’s hard to establish the tone of the language if you haven’t had a good go at reading it aloud and even trying some by heart. And that great thing which writers and experienced readers have – what Vygotsky called ‘inner speech’ – is going to develop more when you have had the opportunity to vocalise a poem.

It’s hardly radical stuff, though the need for competitions to promote the art of reciting poetry such as ‘Poetry by Heart’ would seem to suggest that I’m not alone. But this Spring, as I’ve tried this approach increasingly with Year 11 (reading the immensely challenging poems in Songs of Ourselves for CIE IGCSE) and Year 10 (reading the AQA GCSE ‘Power and Conflict’ anthology), it’s been a useful reminder of the riches of language. Have all students ‘got’ it? Of course not; there probably remains an even better approach. But I do believe that it’s been another piece in the jigsaw of helping students appreciate poetry as an art form and to develop their response, which is, after all, what I’m interested in as a teacher.