This paper examines various studies and arguments that give reasons why many students, and also teachers, feel dislike toward the subject of poetry. Next, the concept of poetry interpretation is explored, and various experts give advice on how to get students to develop the best possible interpretations, including the possibility of using schools of criticism. The paper then establishes the connection between poetry interpretation and poetry writing. It also looks at the importance of creativity, and gives suggestions for cultivating this in students. Methods are then explored for getting students to not only write good poetry, but enjoy writing it.
Keywords: Literary Criticism; National Education Association (NEA); New Criticism; New Historical Criticism; Poetry Interpretation
Considering its prominent if not central position in cultures and civilizations of the past several thousand years, poetry's place in today's society seems peripheral and inessential. Perhaps the rise of science and technology in the last century has caused a decline in poetry's cultural importance, but whatever the reasons, most students today would most likely express the opinion that poetry is old-fashioned and outdated, and that poetry has very little importance in the modern world. Studies show that both teachers and students generally feel aversion toward the study of poetry. According to a survey conducted by Ray (1999), a majority of high school teachers expressed fear of teaching poetry, and reported feelings of inhibition over teaching poetry. She observes that "in some cases, [teachers] could not see the purpose of [poetry]" (p. 405).
Of course, if teachers feel this way, what should we expect students to feel toward the study of poetry? Ray's study also included a survey of high school students, and found that, "the teachers' feelings were reflected in pupil attitudes to poetry: 84 per cent of the pupils did not like poetry" (1999, p. 405). Thus, from the outset, most students feel dislike toward the study of poetry, and that makes the teaching of poetry much more difficult. Young (2007) makes the important observation that "cultural attitudes are often dismissive of poetry" (p. 50), and cites a survey carried out by the National Education Association (NEA). The survey revealed that roughly only 12% of society ever chooses to read poetry. Young describes the bias that a majority of students feel:
In classrooms across the United States - even at the college level - too many students mirror these cultural beliefs in their comments: "poetry is deep," "poetry is dark and mysterious," "I just don't 'get' poetry," and "all poets are depressed and wear black." These are just a few examples of the faulty logic that haunts my classroom every fall. Teaching poetry effectively, then, means not only bringing it to life but also getting past the stereotypes that imprison students' creativity (2007, p. 50).
Reasons for Adverse Attitudes
There are various additional factors that most likely have an adverse effect on teaching poetry. Peskin, Allen and Wells-Jopling (2010) point out that mistaken beliefs and perceptions about teaching poetry may partly create negative attitudes in teachers and students alike. According to Peskin et al., some teachers misperceive the idea that poetry has a quite subjective and personal nature. This perspective, if taken to an extreme, means students can only acquire an understanding of poetry through their own silent and unexpressed perceptions. In other words, some teachers believe that understanding poetry comes naturally to some students and is simply not accessible to others. Many teachers complain that they were never given any instruction in how to teach poetry to students, and they should have had some training on this in their degree programs. They conclude that "lack of experience, lack of preparation, and lack of confidence quickly add up to lack of interest if not complete apathy [toward poetry]" (2010, p. 498).
Ray's survey brings out a related point. According to responses to her survey, those who are supposed to teach students about poetry complained that in their own experience as students, "they were 'taught' poetry rather than shown how to enjoy or appreciate it" (p. 407). Thus, they were instructed in a way that dictated to them what they should think about a poem, rather than led to their own understandings of what a poem means. Such a method of instruction may be due to teachers concentrating too much on exam responses. As Ray puts it, "teachers are anxious that pupils should produce the model answer rather than expressing their own opinions, which might not coincide with the accepted version" (p. 407). She notes that allowing students to reach their own interpretations does present its own problems with assessment, and expresses concern that allowing completely subjective interpretations of poetry "could bring about such difficulties in assessment and marking that poetry might disappear from the English curriculum altogether" (p. 412).
Wrigg (1991) notes that, perhaps because teachers have never had any training in effective methods for teaching poetry, and possibly out of "sheer desperation," some teachers force students to memorize and recite poems in the classroom. When the method of forcing memorization fails, "there is always the dubious practice of rebuking students for indifference toward a subject that in some mystical way is supposedly good for their souls. If negative attitudes are not already existent, they certainly will be before these questionable practices have run their course" (1991, p. 252).
Appreciation vs. Enjoyment
According to Ray's survey results, many teachers experienced positive or at least neutral "recollections about poetry during their own primary school years but largely negative attitudes towards poetry at secondary level" (1999, p. 404). Although she does not make a direct connection between the teaching differences that may have existed during primary and secondary school, it seems likely that grade school teachers are more inclined to read poetry with students for simple enjoyment, whereas high school teachers are probably more inclined to study poetry in a more intellectually rigorous way. Ray makes a distinction between the ideas of "enjoyment" and "appreciation," citing Wittgenstein (1996) who defines enjoyment as "an immediate, emotional response to a work of art or literature while appreciation requires a degree of knowledge" (p. 412). Ray proposes that,
…positive steps would be to clear up the confusions between 'enjoyment' and 'appreciation' and make them explicit; to give pupils the language with which to discuss and evaluate poetry; to guide pupils through the articulation of their own responses, and to relate those responses to the body of knowledge inherent in the subject of literature (1999, p. 412).
Ray argues that "appreciation" is a more complex view of poetry, requiring a deeper understanding of its many aspects. Appreciation takes knowledge of literary nomenclature, such as meter, rhyme, antithesis, imagery, etc., and the ability to use these concepts in critical analysis. Thus, students must become adept in using the tools of literary criticism if they are to increase their appreciation of poetry. Also, a more complex understanding of poetry should include knowledge of historical circumstances and literary movements. Peskin et al. (2010) distinguishe between "formalist" and "populist" perspectives on teaching poetry, but it seems these terms are essentially the same as Ray's distinction of "enjoyment" and "appreciation." As Peskin observes,
the formalists emphasized stylistic devices, rhyme, meter, and literary allusion, possibly at the expense of personal engagement, whereas the populists viewed texts to be played with, at the expense of the development of critical literacy. The challenge for teachers is to somehow engender critical rigor and literacy while fostering engagement (2010, p. 506).
To teach poetry effectively in the classroom, teachers need to consider the various answers to the question, why do students and teachers generally feel aversion toward poetry? Wrigg (1991) argues that there is "nothing intrinsic in the nature of poetry to explain its repugnance to many students. On the contrary, the cadence and meter of poetry should contribute to its appreciation, and its rhythmic quality can be the catalyst through which a response is struck among students" (p. 252). He concludes that "rarely does the heart of the problem lie in the subject matter itself but rather in the unimaginative and ineffective way that it's presented" (p. 252). This leads us to the most important question for the classroom: How should a poetry course be taught such that students enjoy the course while learning about the subject in a more complex way? Essentially, teachers should endeavor to deepen students' appreciation of a poem without damaging their enjoyment of that poem or, as Peskin would put it, teachers should foster engagement while engendering critical rigor and literacy.
Interpretation of Poetry
Poetry can be studied in the classroom in two fundamental directions, that of...
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