Poetry 1: Key Principles

Poetry is the music of language. It is the most condensed, perfect form because the writer has compressed all meaning, emotion and expression into the most concise finished product possible. Every line, every word, every sound has some potential gold to be mined by our students. However, poetry is difficult to teach because:

  • Poems are open to a wide range of interpretations. Which interpretations are ‘right’? Which ones should we teach?
  • Poems are often ruled by very specific genre conventions. How much of this do we need to know? How much should we teach? Do students need to know about all of Romantic Poetry in order to study and understand ‘Ozymandias’?
  • Poems are often like little puzzles; writers often purposefully create them to be confusing, complex and challenging.
  • Students want to find the ‘right’ answer. There often isn’t one, and that’s hard to swallow!
  • Rhyme schemes and technical terminology are rife in poetry. How do we filter these out so that we focus on what’s important?
  • Single poems are often published as parts of wider anthologies or collections. Can we really remove them from their intended context and teach them by themselves? We wouldn’t extract a single piece of recitative from an opera and expect people to appreciate it when divorced from its natural setting, so why do we carve up anthologies like this?
  • Poems for GCSE study are thrown together into an anthology; this editorial decision in some ways dictates how we read the texts. Does this false relationship, often between poems written hundreds of years apart, without any original authorial intent, rob them of their integrity?
  • At GCSE, Teaching fifteen separate poems from fifteen different writers, with context and comparison skills, is very difficult. In some exam boards, this is only worth 12.5% of the grade. In a course of two years, 12.5% of lessons is roughly 30 hours of teaching (not including missed time for assessments, mock exams, trips, poor attendance etc.). That’s a maximum of two lessons per poem. That’s not enough.

Complaining about it is fine, but this is the job before us, and I am all about practical solutions.

Top Tips for Teaching Poetry:

Make a sensible plan. Poems are mini-texts, so if you try to teach all 15 in one half term, like you might with a novel, you risk cognitive overload. Death by poetry. I have had a lot of success with grouping the poems into twos or threes, and teaching them as little poetry mini-breaks in the middle of other schemes of work. e.g.

Y10

Half Term 1: Novel +3 poems

Half Term 2: Language Paper 1, Reading +3 poems

Half Term 3: Creative Writing +3 poems

Half Term 4: Play +3 poems

Half Term 5: Transactional Writing +3 poems

Half Term 6: Poetry skills (bring together the whole anthology, look at exam techniques, and look at unseen poetry skills)

Y11

Return regularly to all Literature texts studied in Y10 through quizzing, spaced and interleaved retrieval

When teaching poetry:

Focus on opening and closing lines (they are usually really significant)

e.g. My Last Duchess by Robert Browning, ‘That’s my Last Duchess painted on the wall, looking as if she were alive’

  1. The poem begins by establishing ownership of the Duchess with the pronoun ‘my’
  2. The designation ‘last’ Duchess creates immediate intrigue; there have been more than one and, it seems, there are more to come. What has happened to these women?
  3. The very opening of the poem establishes the status of the speaker (a Duke), but through the lens of his possession (the Duchess)
  4. The Duchess is not given a name – this establishes her lack of power from the outset.
  1. The whole statement is unsettling; it conveys control, an obsession with owning this woman’s image, and gives us the sense that the narrative voice is somehow sinister.
  2. ‘looking as if she were alive’ introduces the idea of death from the very beginning. This is an unusual thing for someone to say, and suggests that the Duke is somehow unstable.
  3. The Duke is showing this piece of art to a visitor, and then goes on the describe its history. By the end of the poem, he moves on to another piece of art ‘Claus of Innsbrook…’ which suggests that this poem is just an extract of a much longer conversation where the Duke is boasting about the large collection of beautiful and expensive things in his home.

All of these things might be taken from the opening line; this is where the poet establishes many of his key ideas. Students who look at openings and closings are able to achieve language analysis and talk about structure at the same time.

Map out moments of shift (this is usually heavily linked to form, not just structure)

e.g. in a Shakespearean Sonnet, lines 9-12 are usually a response to what has gone before. There is a change in tone. The final lines, 13-14, are always a rhyming couplet, and often provide a solution or final thought.

Consider language holistically as well as looking at detail.

Poems are short, so in addition to doing all the usual close analysis, we can look at them as a whole and identify patterns and semantic fields very easily. e.g. ‘Emigree’ by Carol Rumens is littered with vocabulary related to light and dark, shadow and hope.

Be very selective about how you teach rhyme and rhythm.

Don’t feel the need to teach every single technical feature of a text. This can lead to feature spotting, where students can identify devices, but can’t say anything meaningful about them. Teach only things which can be effectively used in student interpretations. In the case of some poems, for example, The Charge of the Light Brigade, it is a legitimate exercise to teach rhythm and rhyme using technical terminology. The rhythm in this poem is used to create pace and movement. A student can say,

Tennyson uses a constantly changing rhythm throughout the poem; a combination of dactyls and trochee, front-stressed syllables, ensure that there is a feeling of continuous, hazardous movement. This clearly echoes the battle which Tennyson is describing and emphasises the danger and the riders’ bravery to the reader.

The example above shows clearly that this technical knowledge serves to enhance the student’s argument. In some cases, however, this might not be helpful at all. For example, as a GCSE Literature examiner, I saw many students attempting to analyse the rhyme scheme in ‘My Last Duchess’ by Browning. The poem is structured throughout using rhyming couplets. A student might write,

Browning uses rhyming couplets throughout the poem, such as “wall (…) call”, “countenance (…) glance”…

But what can they write now? They might make some weak comments about how some of the rhyming pairs have linked meanings (e.g. “fool (…) mule”), but this is not a fruitful option for in-depth analysis. They would be far better served by looking at tension, vocabulary choices and context.

This post is an extract from ‘How to Teach English Literature: Overcoming Cultural Poverty’. All the resources from this book are free on my blog here. The book is available to buy on Amazon here.

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