National Poetry Month (3) – What Is Poetry?

Poetry scares most people.

Mostly because it is still a foreign experience for many.

I remember being in elementary school and loving poetry. No one in my lower classes ever complained when the teacher said it was time for poetry. But, somewhere, usually in high school, students begin to despise the very idea of anything associated with poetry. Why? Usually because students are asked to find the author’s meaning. They are forced to dissect poems to find examples of figurative language. And because of the rush of the school day and year, most poems are only briefly covered and/or discussed and delving into what the poem could mean is reduced to a drive by reading. Taking poems apart, looking for meaning, but usually a meaning a teacher is expecting. Not one a reader may find.

Readers bring their own experiences and background knowledge to anything they read, including poetry. And while I agree all author’s have a purpose when they write, the reader finds his/her own purpose in what is read because of his/her unique experiences and backgrounds. Because of this, teachers need to embrace poetry for what it is:

the art of rhythmical composition, written or spoken, for exciting pleasure by
beautiful, imaginative, or elevated thoughts
I love the idea of poetry as “elevated thoughts” or “heightened language.” And this is how I introduce poetry to my students. The idea of using language to share emotions and experiences using “heightened language” is integral in the study of poetry. I always begin by bridging the cultural gap my students and poetry have. Students hear the word poetry and think Shakespearean Sonnets, Homeric Epics, Longfellow, or Yeats. This leads to an almost immediate shut down, because they feel they cannot possibly understand poetry written in such difficult language.
Instead of tackling the classical poets immediately, I begin by encouraging students to look for song lyrics as a medium of poetry. We carefully discuss what makes certain lyrics more poetic than others (I still have a hard time believing “I’m Sexy and I Know It” is truly poetic 😉 ) and how the words work to convey meaning, imagery, and symbolism. Students become engaged in poetry by looking at what they know and working their knowledge of figurative language into it.
heightened language
conveys meaning
through images painted
without brush, but
instead with words

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