Word Music: Improve Students Ability to Listen, Think and Write through Poetry

Listening and AppreciationAs students are perusing the videos on My Favorite Poem site, I ask each student to identify their personal favorite poem, explain why they like that poem and post this information to an online forum on the LMS. In a small class, you can have students all do this in a class, but a larger class like mine requires an online learning supplement to the classroom activities. This exercise allows students to show their appreciation for a poem that means something special to them and helps students get to know each other better. The exercise also generates great discussion about poetry online and in the classroom. Finally, I also get to know each student in a new way and sometimes learn about poems I have not read before. As Pinsky describes the project (see above) sound and reading poetry aloud is a crucial step in learning about and appreciating poetry. I always ask a handful of students to read their favorite poems in class and lead a discussion about the poem. Reading aloud gives students a deeper appreciation of the primacy of sound in good poems. Students gain confidence in reading aloud and this, in turn, has an empowering effect on their overall performance. I also access online resources so students can listen to poets read their own poems. I remember twenty years or so ago the New York State English Regents exam given in 11th grade had a listening component. For reasons I do not know this aspect of the exam has been dropped and the negative results of that decision are evident. Given the fact students are attached-often dependent- on cell phones and bombarded by distractions, listening skills and the ability to focus necessarily deteriorate, so restoring the importance of listening and sound appreciation or to me a critical aspect of education. I also access online resources and let students listen to professional poets read their work. PENN SOUND curated by Distinguished Professor Al Filreis and noted poet Charles Bernstein at the University of Pennsylvania and the Kelly Writers House is a superb site I highly recommend to all teachers and students of poetry.  Although students are very familiar with the rhyming skills of contemporary rappers like Kenrick Lamar or the lyrics of pop stars like Ed Sherhena, I also spend at some time talking and showing current performance-based/ spoken word poetry whether, poetry slams, the performers at the legendary Nuyorican Poet’s Cafe in New York City or those scintillating live poetry readers such as Bob Holman (Bard of the Bowery) and Ann Waldman (“Anthropocene Blues”). This poetry spoken word poetry continues the oral tradition of poetry which dates back thousands or years. Pindar recorded poetry to the ancient lyre, an instrument from which we derive the word lyric as in lyrical poetry or song lyrics. Students need to know this long tradition and the primacy of sound in poetry. The troubadours sung lyrics as they traveled about southern France from the 11th to 13th centuries. Petrarch’s sonnets appeared in Il Canzoniere, which translates as song book, in the 14th century. Three of Petrarch’s poems (numbers 47, 104 & 123) were set to music by the brilliant, classical Hungarian composer and pianist Franza Liszt in 1838. As we move into modernism, musicians and poets collaborate in new ways. For example, Langston Hughes poem, “The Weary Blues” (1925) describes a piano playing blues in a Lennox Avenue bar, “Droning a drowsy syncopated tune, /Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon, / I heard a Negro play.” Hughes’ poetry was recorded on an MGM album performed by jazz legend Chuck Mingus, among others, in the late 1950s. Jazz, Blues and Poetry have been seamlessly interwoven in the 20th century. Amiri Baraka described this tradition in his landmark study, Blues People: Negro Music in White America (William Morrow, 1963). More recently, the dynamic African American poet Jayne Cortez performed a variety of powerful, political poems with a jazz ensemble The Firespitters, e.g., “If the Drum Is a Woman”. Finally, after the above survey and attendant discussion I return to specific examples of sound in poetry. This past semester students listened to Dylan Thomas’s extraordinary reading of his remarkable poem, “Do not go gently into that good night,”(published in 1951), which proved particularly effective. Few lyrics move me like this one especially read with the Welsh cadences of Thomas’s vocal genius. I end the class by playing a clip from the movie Interstellar (Nolan 2014) where Thomas’s poem is voiced over by Michael Caine as the ship sails beyond earth never to return. The poem becomes not just prayer for Thomas’s dying, blind father, or for all those people close to each of us who we never want to leave us, but also, the film suggests, to the entire species. How pertinent in a time when time itself is running out and the light might well be extinguished for good. Analyzing and Writing About PoetryOnly after you have established a student’s appreciation and connection with poetry, in my view, begin the more traditional analysis of poetry. If you begin a poetry unit with academic analysis, you can very easily turn students off from the beginning (I am talking about beginning or general education students not literature majors). Close reading remains the best approach to teaching how to analyze a poem line by line or stanza by stanza depending upon the poem’s length and/or complexity. Leave theoretical approaches to seminar students or graduate school. In a segue from listening to poetry, I want to emphasize and reinforce the necessity to close read for SOUND not just sense. Finally, I have students work in small groups of three to analyze poems. The brainstorming d different perspective virtually always brings forth better readings than if students worked entirely on their own. One of my mentors and former professors, the later Harvey Gross’s book Sound and Form in Modern Poetry: A Study of Prosody from Thomas Hardy to Robert Lowell (2nd Edition with Robert McDowell, University of Michigan Press, 1996, originally published in 1966) remains a wonderful guide for analyzing and teaching what makes a poem a poem. Harvey always stressed the “music of poetry” and for that I and other readers should be grateful. Another good guide for working with novice readers is “How to Read a Poem” at the Academy of American Poets site, https://poets.org. When writing about poetry, I ask students to follow their close reading and make sure to comment on each aspect of the poem: shape, sense, and sound, discussed in the analysis part of the unit. Interesting, when I asked students to chose among several poems to write about, 70% chose the two most difficult, Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gently into that good night,” an intricate villanelle (one of the most challenging technical feats in all of poetry) discussed above, and Emily Dickinson’s short, but exceptionally nuanced, and enigmatic little poem, # 556, “The Brain, within its Groove.” When students take on the biggest challenge with an assignment you know you are doing something right! Since students inevitably turn to the Internet for help when analyzing and writing I suggest the University of North Carolina’s Writing Center, which has an excellent handout on writing about poetry explications. Students who used this handout as an aide produced the best papers in my two classes. 

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