Yesterday morning I began teaching poetry to my English students. I argue that poetry is the most powerful means of communicating the “human experience” to other human beings. Where prose “tells” and art “shows” and music “impresses” (i.e., gives an impression to the listener), poetry causes the reader to “experience”. Poetry is the “sublimest activity of the human mind” (W. Somerset Maugham). It shows, tells and impresses. Prose is enhanced when poetry is added. Art is deepened when poems are written about it. Music becomes powerfully meaningful when “put to words”.
This is a tough sell for many students. They have either read a lot of lousy poems or they didn’t understand the poems they have read. Also, students don’t associate the lyrics in a song with poetry nor do they recognize poetic elements in prose.
Yesterday, I tackled the first of the problems. I set out to prove that good poetry and bad poetry exist. This is a tough sell too. We live in a relativistic age; standards for beauty and goodness are set by the “eye of the beholder”, not a perfect, beautiful God of all creation. I begin with a comparison between two poems. I owe this comparison to author Patricia Westerhof.
The first poem is called, “Keep Believing in yourself” by Deanna Beisser. I have provided the opening three stanzas.
There may be days
when you get up in the morning
and things aren't the way
you had hoped they would be.
That's when you have to
tell yourself that things will get better.
There are times when people
disappoint you and let you down,
but those are the times
when you must remind yourself
to trust your own judgments and opinions,
to keep your life focused on believing in yourself
and all that you are capable of…
You get the gist. There are four more stanzas... It is a good message, but it comes across less like a poem and more like a speech by a motivational speaker.
The next poem I show them is a poem by Langston Hughes.
Mother to Son—Langston Hughes
Well, son, I'll tell you:
Life for me ain't been no crystal stair.
It's had tacks in it,
And boards all torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor-
But all the time
I'se been a climbin' on,
And reachin' landin's
And turnin' corners,
And sometimes going in the dark
Where there ain't been no light.
So boy, don't you turn back.
Don't you set down on the steps
'Cause you finds it kinder hard
Don't you fall now-
For I'se still goin', honey,
I'se still climbin',
And life for me ain't been no crystal stair.
Without question, Hughes poem impacts the reader in a far deeper and more profound way. It presents the same message as Beisser’s poem, but it seems to “work”. I explain to my students that Hughes uses the devices of a poet to impact the reader. Here are some of the devices he uses: persona, vernacular, punctuation, rhythm, diction, apostrophes, line length, extended metaphor… Hughes poem is significantly shorter than Beisser’s poem. However, it communicates much more. Hughes poem is sincere. Beisser’s poem is sentimental. Hughes’ poem is influential, powerful and beautiful.
After yesterday’s lesson, I think the students understood that there are certain poems that are not sublime at all. They also learned that perhaps there are poems out there that just might be sublime... or at least, might be pretty good. I think I am making progress.