Friday, November 11, 2011

What is the purpose of poetry?

First, bullet get them out of my system:

  • Happy Veteran's Day--my thanks and admiration go out to all American veterans for everything they've done for our country.
  • My heart goes out to the victims in the Penn State child sex abuse scandal...and to all victims of sexual abuse.
  • There are approximately 4 weeks left in the semester...I can't yet see the light at the end of the paper-filled tunnel, but it's only a matter of time.
  • I've been spending too much time reading Chuck Wendig's blog...F--- Nano. F--- thinking of getting published. F--- rejection. Again. I write because I want to write, because I enjoy playing with words, because I have ideas and characters and plotlines that want expression. Someday I will likely realize that I'm a talentless hack whose work is like a punishment and trial to anyone I subject it to...but not today.

I actually started writing the post below about a month ago...these classes have now completed the Poetry Unit, and I'm in the midst of grading the analysis projects at the end of said unit.

Okay, so you probably have your own answer to the question that titles this post: What is the purpose of poetry. Well, so do I. But the reason I raise the question here is that my English II sections recently faced this question when we did the Poetry Unit of the course, and I found their initial responses to this very question absolutely fascinating. Note: In recent semesters, I've split the units in this course by genre: short fiction, poetry, and drama. In the past, I've tried focusing units on themes or literary concepts (like irony) and mixing genres within that topic.) I asked the class to freewrite responses to two questions that came out of an interview (with a poet) that was published in our course textbook:
  1. What is the purpose of poetry?
  2. Why do we need poetry?
This tends to be a vocal group so, in the middle of the freewrite time, someone piped up, "We don't need it! If you have something you want to express, just say it!"  And other students agreed. This wasn't surprising.  Many people dislike poetry.  Even people who write poetry aren't always avid readers of poetry.  Poems can be difficult and mysterious. Students sometimes carry anti-poetry baggage from their educational history.  And poets like T.S. Eliot are deliberately obscure, fueling the notion that poetry is inaccessible. Over the course of the class period, we got to talking about how poetry works differently.  Even though no one would initially say poetry is "needed," some students did point out that poetry does what other forms of writing don't do.  And this transitioned nicely into a couple of videos I showed of spoken poetry that were direct examples of how poetry "works" differently than prose:
Sekou Sundiata's "Blink Your Eyes."
Brian Turner's "Caravan" and "Eulogy"

By the end of the class period, it *seemed* more students recognized that, just like there are some songs we relate to *exactly*, songs that seem to "get" who we are and how we feel or think, sometimes poetry captures an experience or a moment in ways that prose can't. That "Aha!" moment.

While this might not be surprising to you, it can be eye-opening for students who aren't interested in reading and are perhaps downright antagonistic toward poetry.

Sidenote: one student was on the other side of the fence, stating that all literature had a purpose because the author was trying to convey ideas to an audience and spent time and effort shaping that message. (Sort of a reassuring thought for a hack writer like me.)

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