Poetry Day 15 – an introduction in the middle

2015-04-14 09.55.37At the very beginning of the semester, my literature class read Billy Collins’ “Introduction to Poetry.”

Today, 11 weeks into the semester, we were discussing Dylan Thomas and Robert Frost and I reminded them of Collins’ poem.  The lines – “or walk inside the poem’s room / and feel the walls for a light switch” – had made an impression on them on the first day.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
It’s a hard thing to teach – because it takes some practice to “feel the walls for a light switch.”  When we feel our way around in the dark, we call upon our past experiences and knowledge about the room, about the idea of a room, about what light switch feels like against our fingers, about why we want to turn the light on… and so on.  It’s not about “getting” a poem, but it is about lending a critical eye and mind to the poem – bringing our prior experiences and knowledge to the poem to activate it.
But as Billy Collins has said in his famous TED Talk, schools install “anti-poetry deflector shields” in young people.  Mainly this comes from the intense pressure to “get” it and find the “correct answers.” He says,
And my sense is, it’s a good thing to get poetry off the shelves and more into public life. Start a meeting with a poem. That would be an idea you might take with you. When you get a poem on a billboard or on the radio or on a cereal box or whatever, it happens to you so suddenly that you don’t have time to deploy your anti-poetry deflector shields that were installed in high school.
In a recent article in The Guardian, “Dear Ms Morgan: your guidance is a mini-syllabus on how to wreck poetry,” Michael Rosen, writes about this very practice in an elementary school environment.

What messages about poetry does this guidance give, then? First, we discover that we read a poem in order to “retrieve” exact and correct information from it, and we are supposed to “infer” exact and correct meanings from it.

For example, Rosen cites one of the questions that is asked of the children:

“What would be another good title for the poem?”. There are four possibles and you’re only allowed to pick one. This is a gross distortion of the poetry-game that some of us play, where we do indeed invite children to come up with alternative titles as a way of talking about possible and interesting interpretations, not one correct one out of four.

And once again we’re back to Naomi Shihab Nye’s talk on “The Art of Teaching Poetry.”

 

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