Sunday, December 08, 2013

Poetry for Its Own Sake

A few weeks ago, I copied the following entry from The Living Page in my commonplace book.
When my aunt gave me a poster for the back of my bedroom door so that I regularly fell asleep to Emily Dickinson's avowal, "or help one fainting robin into his nest again" no moral imperative needed to accompany it. I knew that Love notices. I knew already what the "poor robin" looked like.
Because the elementary class at Harvest studied Dickinson last term, I shared the quote with them. A deep magic began.

Two students recited "or help one fainting robin into his nest again" as I read it. Then, they begged to recite the whole poem "If I Can Stop One Heart from Breaking." Half the class joined in the group recitation. One student stood up, announced with dramatic flair, "Let me say it alone," and recited it from memory in a crisp, joyful voice.

One student confessed, "When we did exams last week, Mrs. Tammy let me say only one poem. I wanted to do them all."

Another chimed in, "Me, too!" A third said, "Let's do it now."

The class recited three more Dickinson poems en masse: "Hope," "I'm Nobody," and "Autumn." I saw smiles beaming from the large table around which the students gathered.

We turned to the term's poet Alfred Lord Tennyson. One boy asked why we were not reading Dickinson. He seemed a bit sad! We sailed into new territory, and I recited a new poem, "The Eagle." They quickly spotted alliteration in "He clasps the crag with crook hands, close to the sun in lonely lands."

The first time they studied alliteration required attentiveness and thinking. I wrote several examples from Dickinson's poem "Forbidden Fruit" and asked them to spot the pattern. To prevent one person from robbing another of the opportunity to discover, each student had to come to me and whisper what they noticed. The class was delighted to work out the definition for themselves:
  • forbidden fruit
  • hopeless hang
  • color on the cruising cloud,
  • the hill, the house
Poetry is rich towards words. We cannot help mining new gems from poems. The students wondered what Tennyson meant by the phrase azure world, so I pointed them toward their knowledge of Spanish. "Azul!" declared one student. "He's talking about the blue sea," exclaimed another. Another opportunity to wonder and think and discover.

On Friday, on a whim that turned out to be a whisper from God, I read "The Dying Swan" to the class. At the end, several students remarked about how sad the poem was. Then, another smiled and concluded, "At least, we know it's in swan heaven." I picked the poem to go with the science book we have been reading all term. Unbeknownst to me in advance, the passages we read included the death of a swan! We all marveled at the unexpected connection, and again, they reiterated, "As least we know it's in swan heaven."

We also assigned the next poem, "The Owl." Pamela and I spent the weekend memorizing the first three lines (yes, I memorize them, too, for my own sake). Pamela struggles with the first line because it lacks articles. The second line comes more easily because the grammar follows the rules. Learning to be flexible with language for the sake of beauty gives her the chance to think dynamically. Since this poem has such a striking rhythm, I have spotlighted rhythm for her to feel why Tennyson leaves out the article the.
When cats run home and light is come,
And dew is cold upon the ground.
Adding proper grammar crumbles the meter.
When the cats run home and the light is come,
And the dew is cold upon the ground.
As Law writes in a Parents' Review article about Tennyson,
The first poets were invariably minstrels, and it is still expected of a poet that he should be able to "sing a good song." Nor is this a bad test of poetic faculty. In a song a lack of melody (if I may borrow an illustration from music) cannot be disguised by cunning harmonies or learned orchestration. It is also a test of sincerity: a song makes a direct appeal: we can tell at once if it rings false. Again, we know as soon as we hear it whether our poet is quite spontaneous, or straining himself, forcing the note. As a song writer, Tennyson ranks with the highest.
As we are studying John James Audubon for our artist and birds for nature study to prepare for the Great Backyard Bird Count in February, we will ask them to classify the owl based on the clues in the poem. Several phrases ought to give away habitat: "merry milkmaids," "new-mown hay," "thatch," and the cock singing "his roundelay." "The white owl in the belfry sits" gives it away completely if you ask me.

Students in some schools churn out slipshod didactic cinquains as a scheme to practice their parts of speech—a recent experience for me during a tutoring session last month. The children at Harvest are far more blessed. They get to build memories of sitting with a friend and reciting together for practice... acting out a poem to forge a link to the next line... sharing a poem with a student in another class at lunch... getting to recite a poem as part of their exams...

For more on the teaching of poetry for its own sake, check out this Parents' Review article.


Brandy Vencel said...

Okay, I know the post is about so much more than technique, but I am wondering how old these students are, and at what age your school would teach something like alliteration? I have only shared poetry with my children -- memorized or read aloud. We haven't learn anything about mechanics, beyond rhyme, which they noticed themselves. I have begun to think something is missing. Help? :)

Bonnie said...

Loved reading this and the delight of poetry at Harvest. My , wish I could bring the Emily doll Carla Stout made for me last year. She has poetry on her pockets! ON facebook from last June or May. God cares for every detail in all we do. Same things happened today reading a short story with my high school students.

walking said...

Brandy, sometimes a student asks a question that leads to the discussion of poetic form. In my next post, I describe such a situation. The student thought grass would make more sense than hay in Tennyson's "The Owl". We studied the last words in each line and that helped her see why he chose one word over the other. I think the ideal situation is to answer questions as they come up for younger children. We do have some seventh graders which is why we introduce a mechanic for poems that illustrate it well. However, we have not delved into great detail. Just a little here and there.

Poetry on pockets! How delightful, Bonnie!