Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Why do students hate poetry?

Why do students hate poetry? One of the main reasons students dislike poetry, I suggest, is because students have been trained to look for “story” in all the literary works they encounter. Overemphasis on story is evident in the sort of literature students are asked to study.

The bulk of teacher-sanctioned classroom reading material is narrative.

Novels, movies, short stories and graphic novels provide clear, discernible plots for our students to find; poetry offers them a sublime experience that is discernible only after a concerted effort on the part of the reader.

This overexposure to narrative fiction, coupled with the fact that we live in a time when entertainment and information come in flashy, overly explicit and simplified forms, results in our students' aversion to the seemingly "dull", implicit and complicated forms of poetic expression.

Why we should emphasize POETRY instead of PROSE

Human beings have a natural affinity for story; we tell stories, we enjoying hearing and watching stories and we understand our lives in terms of story. Literary education has capitalized on this natural love of story in order to foster student interest. This is not necessarily a bad thing. However, teaching “story” has been over-emphasized. Whether in the form of comic books, graphic novels, plays, movies, short stories or novels, “story” has been the backbone of English education.

The consequence is that students now expect to find plot is almost every piece of creative writing they encounter. When poetry is taught, many teachers choose to teach ballads or narrative poetry. Even in narrative poetry, however, “plot development” is rarely the raison d'être. As a result, when a student encounters a lyric poem, or if the narrative is veiled or vague, he throws up his arms in despair: “pointless”—“I don’t get it”—“stupid”—in other words, the student is impatient for clear meaning because that is what he has been taught to look for.

Certainly great literature is more than “plot”; however, many students miss the “poetic” aspects of prose because they can easily and effortlessly understand the story. Since that is what they are used to look for, they often stop there. I have heard many English teachers complain that students provide “plot summary” instead of analysis. Understanding plot is the effortless part of reading prose fiction. A good story teller should be able to clearly convey plot! When a student is asked to find the “deeper” meaning of a novel or short story, they are really being asked to understand the poetic meaning. The symbols, extended metaphors, allusions, imagery, etc. of a novel are the poetic elements. This is, I argue, the heart of literary exploration. Reading plot summaries is not reading literature. Reading and understanding the poetry within the prose is what true literary reading is all about. Plot can be a distraction to poetic understanding. Therefore, in early years, we should begin teaching students more poetry and less prose. We should also emphasize poetry in our curriculum from K-12. Poetry is the gateway to understanding all other forms of literature.


Barbara said...

Funny that. I read this just after having my dear oldest break down in tears because she had to explain why a poem sounded dramatic. And then she panicked when the next instruction was to try and write a similar poem....

We didn't make her write anything. The painstaking process of making her find 'dramatic words' and descriptive tools was hard enough. Although, I'm not sure she saw the story in the poem either. She is so black and white and precise that using her imagination or a freer form of creativity is difficult for her. We'll work on it.

For my part, all I ever wanted to do was study poetry. Leave the essays and satires for someone else.

and no word of a lie: my word verification is suckart. Yes. Some of us do.

Jeremy W. Johnston said...

Ee gads! I have more to say on this subject (at some point). Explaining how poetry functions and then mimicking those functions is standard practice... Most kids hate it. I suppose it is like asking students to dismember a poem and then piece it back together like a Frankenstein monster. Somehow we kill the poem in the process...