On Teaching Poetry

During my second year in the MFA program, I taught CRW 3013 which is Creative Writing for English Majors. In my 3013 class, I instructed students in three genres: poetry, fiction, and literary nonfiction. I was a fiction major in the MFA program so I had some comfort in teaching fiction, and while literary nonfiction was still relatively new to me, I received enough exposure to it during my time at UCF that I felt confident enough to teach introductory classes on the subject. But poetry terrified me. I learned that there was an advantage to fearing poetry.

I had taken poetry as a requirement when I was an undergrad at USF. I had struggled with it, but still managed to get an A- from a tough teacher. But a good nine years had passed and my poetry skills and knowledge were rusty to say the least. Many people in my life have remarked on how they hate poetry, while the ones who did love poetry always had the attitude that you either got it or you didn’t. Poetry-loving can seem like an exclusive club to those with little experience reading or writing it.  If I learned anything from teaching poetry, it’s that poetry is not an exclusive club. Anyone can enter. You just have to make the attempt to read and to write poetry.

The first hurdle is getting students to read poetry. I had my students read “The Country” by Billy Collins because it’s a humorous poem where the speaker imagines a country house being burned down by a mouse with a wooden match stuck between its teeth. I would stress to stop worrying about being right or wrong in their interpretations because I wanted them to actually enjoy reading the poem. I’d then show them an animated film based on the poem (available here). The students got wildly defensive about their own interpretations of the poem, chastising the short film for getting it wrong. One student complained about the mice being the wrong color because they’re white in the film, but the poem refers to the mouse as “little brown druid.” I found their enthusiasm rubbing off on me. If some of these students weren’t poetry readers when they walked into the classroom, they were now.

Still, communally reading and appreciating a poem is easier than writing one yourself. Many beginning writers fall into the trap of using abstract language over concrete details, so I thought it would be best to have a poetry lesson on the differences between the two. I showed my students a photograph of a wet dog and asked them to describe the dog using three of the five senses. Next, I explained to them the basic definitions of abstract imagery and concrete imagery and asked them if their own descriptions of the dog were abstract or concrete.

I then had the class read some terrible love poetry that I had gathered from the Internet. In one, the speaker is an artist who goes on about how beautiful his lover is but for all the talk of art, we have no idea what this person looks like, what makes them beautiful. The speaker says there aren’t any colors that could express the beauty within or no sculpture could capture his lover’s flawless beauty. All we get from this poem is abstract language that doesn’t mean a thing.  Contrast this with another love poem I found online where the speaker describes the sensation of kissing his lover on the mouth, lips tasting like bitter coffee with sugar and a wedge of lime. I asked the class if the images from second poem lingered in their minds longer than the ones from the first. The class overwhelmingly responded yes. That’s the real trick about writing: getting our words to stick in the heads of our readers.

We went on to read poems by Gary Soto and Hannah Stein, pointing out the concrete imagery where we saw it. When it came time for the writing exercise, the emphasis was on using concrete details, the things we see, hear, taste, touch, and smell. That was one lesson down with more to come. As I said before, I was afraid to teach poetry, but this lesson worked to my advantage.

There’s an old adage that states we fear what we don’t understand. The best way to understand something is to start with the basics. When you have to tackle a genre that isn’t one of your strengths, start with those basics. As my teaching advisor, Russ Kesler, once told me, “If you’re not learning, you’re not teaching.” Don’t be afraid to learn.

 

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Jeffrey Shuster is an MFA candidate in fiction at the University of Central Florida. You can read his blog, “The Curator of Schlock,” over at The Drunken Odyssey: http://thedrunkenodyssey.com/category/the-curator-of-schlock/
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