Teaching Poetry in Literature-Based Writing Courses

Developmental Writing Tip: Teaching Poetry in Literature-Based Writing Courses

This post on teaching poetry begins a four part series that explores literature-based writing classes.

In this series, we’ll explore the concept of literature-based writing courses and how we, as writing teachers, can use literature in our composition courses to teach writing.

In order to gain a full perspective on this discussion, I’m going to break our exploration into four different parts, each focusing on a popular genre of literature: poetry, short stories, short film, and drama. Because I use each of these genres in my literature-based writing courses, much of this discussion will focus on my own experiences in the classroom. I’ll tell what has worked for me and give some examples of effective assignments.

But, I also want to use this series to open a discussion. I’d love to hear from you. Do you teach a literature-based writing course? What works or doesn’t work in your composition classroom?

Teaching Poetry in Literature-Based Writing Courses

At the University of Georgia where I teach, the second semester of freshman composition is literature-based writing. We use various forms of fiction to help students both generate interesting topics and also to provide for them models of engaging and effective writing.

We discuss the works, of course, but not quite in the same way you would in a literature seminar course. After all, freshman composition is still primarily about writing. Therefore, I use the literature to help spur discussion and to catalyze critical thought in a way that’s a bit different from what students do in their first semester, which is more focused on analysis of nonfiction.

In my classes, we spend a few weeks each with poetry, short stories, drama, and short film, and I use each of these genres to teach different elements of good writing.

Using Poetry to Teach Writing

1. Teaching Poetry Helps Students Open Up

Students in my English 1102 classes begin the semester with a poetry unit. I always get some initial resistance to the study of poetry, but I’ve found that opening with this form really breaks down walls that would otherwise stand in the way of the meaningful discussion I attempt to foster in my courses.

And that’s actually the first advantage of using poetry to teach writing. It encourages openness and vulnerability and helps establish a classroom culture that prioritizes personal expression and reflection. Because I use drafting and peer review heavily in my writing courses, it’s crucial that my students quickly embrace the idea that we will be both giving and receiving advice that may sting a little. I need them to recognize that it’s okay to put ourselves out there a little bit–even if that means we might be opening ourselves to critique. Because that’s how we get better–by making ourselves vulnerable to people we trust and by accepting constructive criticism on works in which we’ve invested ourselves.

Thus, reading and discussing poetry helps establish a classroom culture that preps students to open themselves and make themselves vulnerable in order to get better. When I assign a 200 word reflection on Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” on Day 1, I give them no direction and I tell them there’s no wrong answer. On the second day they must share their reflections with the class. I’ve found that this really scares some students who have been trained (by AP English teachers?) that poems have a “correct” interpretation. No student wants to be wrong. Especially not on the second day of the semester in front of the whole class.

Little by little, they begin to recognize that I never correct anyone’s interpretation of Pound’s poem. They can write anything the poem speaks to them and I will accept it and encourage them to explore the thought in more detail. In this way, the students gain confidence and become more willing to share their thoughts and ideas. Exactly what I’m going for.

2. Teaching Poetry Encourages Close Reading and Creative Critical Analysis

The second major advantage of teaching poetry in literature-based writing courses is the way it instinctively trains students to read closely and think critically. It’s basically impossible to discuss poetry without conducting a close critical reading.

Take for example ee cummings poem “next to of course god america.” I teach this poem precisely because cummings’s strange syntactical arrangement forces students to focus on the poem’s words. The clich├ęd phrases are jumbled and out of order. The poem lacks proper punctuation and the enjambed lines require multiple readings in order to be understood.

Students not only recognize the importance of grammatical clarity, but they also begin to understand that sometimes we have to read a piece several times in order to truly understand its meaning. Not to mention the poem’s theme always catalyzes a lively discussion. Every semester, a couple students pick this poem to analyze more deeply in their first papers.

A second exercise I like to use during our poetry unit which encourages creative critical analysis is a comparative juxtaposition. I assign two poems to be read the same day. Two seemingly very different poems that turn out to be more similar than one might think: Anne Bradstreet’s “To My Dear and Loving Husband” and Sherman Alexie’s “Reservation Love Song.”

Written four hundred years apart, these two poems seem to be as disparate as conceivably possible. But once we start digging into the works and comparing them, the class begins to see these striking similarities that were previously invisible. We discuss the sincerity (or lack of) from each narrator. We explore the concept of honesty. We try to decide if each piece is an example of “true love.” We explore some of the cultural landscapes that produced each of these works.

By the end of the day, we’ve all begun to recognize that these two poems that once appeared to be binary opposites are actually quite similar and even inhere within each other. This lesson teaches students the ever important concept of the binary and how we can use opposing ideas in nature and society in order to conduct a deep analysis of the concepts those ideas represent.

3. Teaching Poetry Introduces Authorial Voice

The Bradstreet/Alexie juxtaposition–in addition to the many other poems we read–also illustrates vastly different authorial voices, which is another important element I hope to teach in my literature-based writing classes.

By this second semester, I want students to begin identifying their own writing voices and teaching poetry gives them multiple examples from which to draw. I’ll pick this discussion of voice back up in the second post of this series when I discuss short stories, where authorial voice becomes even more clear.

Poetry, then, kicks off my literature-based writing classes for several reasons. One, it creates a classroom culture of openness and vulnerability. Two, by its very nature, it forces students to read closely and analyze critically. And, finally, teaching poetry allows students to start thinking about their own voice and writing identity, which becomes even more important during the second unit when we begin reading short stories.

What about you? Do you teach a literature-based writing class? How do you teach poetry in your classes?

Read the next post now: Teaching Short Stories in Writing Classes.