Poetry’s power partly lies in its ability to distill a great deal of meaning into a small space. An English teacher friend of mine used to explain to her students that poetry is the tomato paste of the literary world. Novels are crushed tomatoes, short stories are tomato sauce, but poetry is the thick paste that only comes out of that tiny can with a spoon (or opening both ends of the can and pushing the paste out in one big flavorful lump).
The compact nature of poetry also makes it useful for teaching English composition, especially in college-level classes that often must stuff yards of material into inches of calendar space. For example, when the state where I teach decided to re-design developmental English, shoving 16 weeks of material from two separate 16-week reading and composition classes into one class of 8 weeks, I was having difficulty fitting in essential grammatical information.
Our old developmental English textbook used Langston Hughes’ “Harlem” as a way to teach vivid verbs, but my students had a hard time understanding what a verb was in the first place, so the poem became my way to simply identify verbs and introduce the concept of syntax, denotation and connotation as well as analyzing concrete texts and the original purpose of verb usage.
In addition, we would discuss the importance of symbolism, metaphor, simile, and other figurative language, all concepts the re-design material stressed as important information to cover.
It worked beautifully.
I would introduce the poem and put it into historical context–an African-American writer titling a poem “Harlem”that he wrote in 1951 New York. We would talk about the importance of the title and how it helps the reader understand the poem better.
I would have students identify the action verbs and verbals in the sentence–happens, deferred, does, dry up, fester, run, etc.
Then we would look at the similes “like a raisin in the sun,” “stink like rotten meat,” and “crust over like a syrupy sweet.” We would talk about the imagery and the importance of syntax and rhyme. Why is it important, I would ask, that the two lines rhyme and come one after the other in the poem?
Inevitably, I would have at least one student who would, in the beginning, question the relevance of studying a poem in a developmental English class, but by the end of the discussion, I would have almost always won the student over to the importance of using connotation, syntax and figurative language in their writing.
No doubt about it–plain and simple. It was the Power of Poetry that won them over in the end.
The Power of Poetry is certainly displayed in the fine poetic contributions to the
Spring 2018 edition of Teach. Write.: A Writing Teachers’ Literary Journal.
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