Today is Edgar Allan Poe’s 205th birthday. So, to mark this illustrious occasion, it seems fitting to talk about poetry and how to get students interested in poetry.
Getting students interested in poetry is often hard work. The term “poetry” seems to carry almost as much stigma as the name “Shakespeare” when uttered in front of adolescent students. We all know that much of this is attributable to both Poetry and Shakespeare having attained the hallowed and inaccessible cache of being strictly for “those people”. People who are very different in their tastes and choices of past-times than your average teenage girl or boy.
Of course, this is all just a perception problem. Anyone who has ever taught Shakespeare has enjoyed that moment of dawning recognition when students realise that even the most lauded of the Bard’s work is bursting at the seams with bawdy humour and inappropriate subject matter. A popular refrain in my classroom whenever I teach Shakespeare is: “If it didn’t say Shakespeare on the cover, there is no way they’d let us teach it”. The same is true of poetry when students realise that most, if not all, love poems are really more about sex than they are about a chaste “marriage of true minds”. Not unlike the lyrics of pop songs they know every word to.
So what do we do to quickly and efficiently remove the stigma of teaching poetry, allowing us to get down to enjoying the subject matter, analysing the textual forms and features, finding connections with our contemporary world and generally appreciating the significance of the composer’s expressions?
Well, there are lots of different approaches. But, one that is close to my heart is to kick off any study of poetry, from war poetry to love poetry, by looking at the lyrics of the dumbest and most mind-numbing of pop songs currently in heavy rotation on the radio, iTunes and on-line radio stations and treat it like it were a piece of high art; pointing out the use of poetic devices, demonstrating how the composer has created rhyme and controlled meter, identifying intertexual references or blatant plagiarism of canonical poets. Basically anything I can do to “bridge the gap” between what students perceive as “their culture” and what they perceive as the culture that belongs exclusively to weirdos who read poetry willingly and in their spare time, i.e. English teachers and the like.
One particular resource I have found helpful in recent years is the video clip for the MC Lars song “Flow Like Poe”. MC Lars cleverly demonstrates how Poe’s use of rhyme, rhythm and meter are still used today by rappers and other lyricists. The song is both catchy and highly amusing (and not just in that nerdy teacher humour way that leaves students both bewildered and annoyed). Many of the references in the song “Flow Like Poe” are to the ballad “The Raven” which makes it ideal as part of a study of The Gothic or a genre study of Horror. Whichever way you use it, it is excellent as a “hook” to begin any unit on Poetry.
Let us know if you have any other suggestions or resources that make great “hooks” or “ice breakers” for teaching Poetry.
Happy 205th birthday Edgar Allan Poe!
- Anthony Bosco