Saturday 21 January 2012

Can poetry survive education? Yes.

The principle lying behind some old ways of teaching children, school students and college students how to read and understand poetry is the deficit theory. That's to say, the reading pupil supposedly knows less about the poem than that alliance of the educator, text-book and examiner. The outcome here is that in the tests, the top 5% (very nearly all of whom come from homes where talk about literature and ideas goes on anyway) simply absorb this stuff through the pores in their skin. A sizeable chunk in the middle experience the process as mild humiliation, but go through the paces and do OK and don't bother with poetry very much ever again. The failing percentage have no idea what all that chat was for and learn to hate poetry. (Exaggeration I know, but bear with me.)

The reason for all this lies in the kinds of questions the reading pupils are given: most of them are variations on the theme of proving why the poem is 'effective' or, in lay terms, good. So, whether in short bursts or longer passages, the pupil has to spot and name bits of the poem doing what poems do (apparently these are metaphors, similes, alliteration, similes, personification, rhyme, rhythm, imagery) but, in this particular poem chosen by the text-book writer or examiner, are all done 'effectively'.

In truth, this is all pretty tiresome and has very little to do with how or why poets write/perform and probably, given half a chance, not much to do with how or why anyone chooses to read poems.

So what to do?

Unavoidably, we all read with two inter-related aspects of ourselves: our experience of life, our experience of texts. You can of course pretend to read with someone else's experience of life and experience of texts and a good deal of the test-crazy system tries to get pupils to do just this: coming up with rehearsed formulae  disguised rather thinly as coherent responses. In order to tap into the two inter-related experiences (of life and texts), all that educators need to do is ask another genre of question altogether: the questions that clearly the educator doesn't know the answers to. Only then can the reading pupil position him- or herself as a fully entitled reader.

So -
you can ask readers to discuss (eg in pairs) what aspects of the poem remind them of anything that has ever happened in their life or in someone else's life they know about;

you can ask readers to discuss what aspects of the poem remind them of anything that they have read, viewed, heard by way of 'text' (including film, TV, song, etc) that aspects of the poem reminded them of. In both these questions,  you can ask the reader to discuss why or how they were reminded - in other words to tease out the links and possible explanations for the links.

Then you can ask the readers (in pairs or small groups) to come up with questions that they would like to ask of the poem, the poet, or indeed anyone or any thing in the poem. You can then collect all these questions together and then, create some kind of forum in which to answer them. One way is to ask eg one of the readers to take on the role of the poet and the others to interview the poet. Similarly, a reader could, say, take on the role of the Duke, or the killed Duchess in 'That's my last Duchess' and field questions accordingly.

When it comes to the way in which the poem has been put together, there is a way in which the power can stay with the reader. You can point out that poems are a way of 'sticking language together' - what M.A.K. Halliday calls 'cohesion' - 'wording' has 'cohesion'.  You could say, poems are a 'specialised form of cohesion' (for sixth formers and college students). For younger pupils you show how clauses and sentences and paragraphs are ways of sticking words 'The man walked into the room. He was wearing a hat.' ('He' back refers to 'the man' and so 'sticks' sentence two to sentence one.) Poetry does this same sort of thing as other language but has others ways too: eg anything that comes under the heading of 'prosody' - the musicality of language which ties words, phrases, verses, whole poems together (eg rhythm, rhyme, repetition and any repeated sound-systems).  Poetry also uses patterns of images - a kind of secret network of recurring, image. It also often uses binary opposites of ideas, images, themes.These 'stick' the binary parts together. That's often how conflict and contrast work in all literature, but in poetry it can be over a comparatively short and dense piece of writing.

You can demonstrate this (once, say), or 'scaffold' it, as the jargon puts it, and in so doing you show that parts of a poem link to other parts (stick together) using 'secret strings'. If you have copies of the poem, you can draw these secret strings straight on to the poem. You put a loop round a letter, syllable, whole word, clause, verse, chorus or whatever and run the string to the next part of the poem that links with it. For younger children, I call the children 'poem detectives'. It's a game. Find the secret strings. And you say, 'You can't be wrong. If you find a string and can show how or why it's a string - it's a string! You're right.' This puts the power of 'spotting' into the hands of the readers. They can work in pairs doing this...and then share the discoveries.

You can then ask them to discuss why such strings are there...pointing out that the poet might well have not spotted them him- or herself.

You don't have to do this with every poem - of course! There are plenty of other things to do with poems: like reading one and then another and then another! Or reading it outloud. Or not reading it outloud. Or writing it out in your own notebook. Or reading it outloud while some other people do 'freeze-frame tableaux to 'illustrate' it. Or drawing a picture that is inspired by the poem. Or taking photos to go with the poem. Or making a power-point with the poem...and so on. Or sticking post-its on to a poem with your thoughts of that part of the poem on the post-its.

I offer the above questions, though, for those occasions when there is a reason for trying to make explicit how and why poems are interesting, how and why they might matter, how and why they might be effective (or not); how and why they are 'stuck together'. That said, it may well turn out that the questions people ask for which there are no definite answers, may well take readers to important aspects of the poem. That's because one major strand of poetry is about saying things in non-explicit ways, to suggest and imply things, or to say things that are intended to set up chains of associations away from the poem itself.

Picking up on a theme from an earlier blog: this keeps the processes of investigation, discovery, play and co-operation at the heart of the reading and critical processes.