A blog entry about teaching and learning poems


I’ve just bought from a nearby bookstore a poetry collection called “Selection from the Great Poets of the 20th Century”. The book was pure joy, but I can’t help lamenting on the development of the art of poetry in the city after the experience. The fact that I was the only customer with black hair to excavate into the inaccessible corner of the bookstore, and pull out a newly binded yet dust-plagued book from the lofty shelves just makes me feel sad. Since when had poetry perverted to a museum piece, which no one, especially teenagers, dares to touch? We still worship the names of Shakespeare and Bryon, but the art itself, alas, is no longer living.


Students these days have a reluctance to read poetry because they are afraid of the cryptic and elusive language employed. Some can’t even understand the meaning of individual words in the text, let alone interpret the whole poem. Years down the road, even teachers fear that they are not well-equipped enough to teach poetry, and the vicious cycle continues, as the art of poetry drifts away from us day by day, more and more distant.


Another reason why students hold a dislike, or even aversion towards poetry, is that they think it is not applicable to the everyday life. In this age of pragmatism, we still see the need of composing letters and emails. In school, we learn to write proposals, articles, stories and all other ‘proper prose’. But poetry? Forget about it. Honestly, what can you do with those flowery, grandiloquent language and poetic devices? That perhaps speaks the mind of thousands of students. While other text-types may fall into the categories of either ‘informative’ or ‘entertaining’, poetry, as it appears, is never able to find its way between the two.


Poems, though, despite its current chasm with students, certainly has its irreplaceable qualities when helping us express our feelings and thoughts.


To begin with, poetic language can help express subtle and suppressed emotions. The rhetorical devices and the expansive use of similes and metaphors can help us illustrate feelings deep down in our gut fully but not too explicitly. Through this, we can maintain a sense of discretion when showing our thoughts with others.


Connectedly, poetry can often convey underlying passages in a less direct way. For example, in my newly bought book, great poets of the 20th century, often satirise the government or paint portraits of certain concerned persons with their dry and witty poetic language. This can be extremely useful in our daily lives, when we don’t want to mock somebody straight in the face, while feeling a need to publicise our discontent on certain issues.


Composing a poem is difficult, that I agree, given the daunting language ability needed and all the exemplars before us. Nevertheless, even if we don’t write our own verses, I believe, it’s still good if we can pick up a verse or two from the past masters to illustrate the same feeling or idea. ‘As time passes, the human nature stays the same,’ says the famous Chinese writer Liang Shi Qiu. To know how great poets of the past had tried to describe one particular subtle feeling under some particular circumstances, and taking it as your own, it’s like a lamp from the old age enlightening scenes of the present day. This process of the recycling of words can go on forever, and through it, we all gain a little wit and wisdom.


The chasm between students and the lost art of poetry is bridgeable, still, if we all make an effort in waking up our poetic minds buried deep down in the human nature. In this, schools definitely have a part to play.


Language teachers, for one, ought to cover more poetry in the curricula for students. Teach, for example, of not the very sophisticated techniques of writing poems, or too much about the history and evolution of poetry, but to inspire their interest in and encourage them to explore this unique genre. To inspire creativity of students, the school can organize poetry writing competitions. These competitions should free students from the bars of technical poetic constraints, but instead, encourage students to deliver their individual take on the word ‘poetry’ and compose pieces consisting of true emotions. It is this genuineness of substance that defines the artistic calibre of the work.


Last but not least, students can also be led to the course of poetry through other media such as films. Through movie appreciation that is relevant to poetry, such as ‘Dead Poets Society’ starring Robin Williams, can spark the interest of students in the art and inspire them further.


Poetry is not dead. Please post this article on your blogs to support my cause. Orz