Calling Forth Joy: A Poet's Ideas About Teaching Poetry

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Authored by

  • Tami Haaland
    Montana State University
    Billings, Montana

Connecting with the Voice

Poetry engages the body, emotions, and spirit, as well as the intellect, and listening to a poem provides a more primal understanding of poetry than what may ordinarily be taught in the classroom. Instead of reaching first for analysis, abstraction, and explanation, I try to connect students to poetry as it has always been experienced—as a voice that calls forth joy or sorrow, a rhythmical series of sounds that affect us as profoundly as music.

When I introduce poetry—often to students who have had little or no exposure to the genre—I move very quickly to reading poetry. I often begin with Frost’s “Design,” and after the students hear it, I ask what it’s about—or as Maxine Kumin asks, for the “plot” of the poem. Then I advise students to listen for sounds, and I read it again. They count lines and we sketch rhyme schemes on the board, a first for many students.

In this way students begin to develop a notion of what a sonnet is, not as they might ordinarily do in a literature class, where the teacher explains the technical requirements and moves from there to an analysis of content, but by uncovering layers of sound, counting lines, and listening yet again for rhythm. I don’t want my students to write a sonnet as a first exercise in poetry. But we start with this poem because I want them to understand a little of what’s possible within the tradition.

Learning to “Feel” Poetry

Then we move to Sharon Olds’s “Alcatraz,” a free verse, heavily enjambed poem in which the speaker remembers when her parents threatened to send her to Alcatraz. When I ask students what they feel as they hear the poem, one student responds that she feels tension, which is precisely the answer I might have hoped for. The students experience the effect of enjambment before they hear any explanation; they understand it not as a concept but as a rhythm that affects their response, contracting their muscles, gradually feeling the constricted environment the poem suggests.

Sometimes when students begin to bring their own work to class, I am pleasantly surprised by the results. More often, I have to remind them that poetry isn’t just a good idea: it’s not just an explanation of falling in love, wishing that the dead could still be with us, or talking about the beauty of a mountain. In the process of discussing how they could enliven their work, we return to the poetry of masterful poets. Again, we read aloud or, if I have access to good recordings such as those in Poetry Speaks (Naperville, Ill.: Sourcebooks MediaFusion, 2001), we listen to poets read their own work.

Although it’s important to discuss elements of craft in the classroom—line breaks, alliteration, or imagery—I sometimes wonder how much one can actually teach about writing poetry. I am certain, however, that assigned exercises provide students with some experience in the difficult and mysterious process of writing. Nothing we do in the classroom is finished; and I remind students that if they really want to write, they must devote years to experimentation and study before their work will become what it needs to become.

Poetry

11:05

This is my tired poem when the ash
leaves turn and willows by the river
sift theirs to the ground; this is my
turning in poem, my singing poem
about the dog curled into old blankets
and cats rattling dishes in the sink.
This is for sleep, for you who have
begun to sink into the deep water
of dreams where I am swimming
to meet you in tall weeds and we
wait for the next big fish. This is my
swimming poem when we rise
to its belly, hold to its spiked fins and
follow it into the open waters of this lake.

Lecture

"For me, the spirit world is very real."
She stands at the podium looking
at rows of students above her.
"Freed from space and time it might
exist here at this moment, only
we can’t see it. Let's say it does."

Someone heckles from the back
“realism or nothing” and
Van Gogh winks at Joyce whose eyes
glimmer over the woman’s shoulder.
“I knew someone like that,” Van Gogh says.
“Think of the damage he might do among

the living.” The room begins to feel warm.
“Don’t worry, my dear,” says George Eliot.
“Remember the squirrel’s heartbeat?”
What am I doing? she asks herself. Believe,
fine, but why announce?
“Yes, I see your point,”
she says to the man, whom Van Gogh

is painting into a spiral of sun, “but how
can you be so sure realism is the way
to go?” she says. “Think of...”
“Me!” Van Gogh shouts, “Me, Me!”
“Think of... oh, you know, the man
who painted sunflowers,” and Van Gogh

slings red ochre at the wall behind her.
“Or think of Roethke talking with
plants,” she says. “Yes, yes, they could
hear me,” says Roethke, “but you should have
heard what they said.” Van Gogh
swirls night and stars onto the chalk board

and Joyce joins Roethke mid-aisle where
they mime Book I of Paradise Lost, lolling
about the floor like devils. Milton
scowls from the rafters, though he, too,
agrees about realism and says so
to Dizzy Gillespie who blows his trumpet

over all their heads. Floodgates
appear on the horizon and Eliot gazes
at the scene near the speaker
who moves on to her next point,
which has nothing to do with realism,
which was beside the point anyway