Using a Journal to Keep Poetry Interesting: Tip for Teaching High School Students

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Another Look at Poetry

It’s easy to let poetry slip by. It’s easy to have the class read a bunch of Frost or Shakespeare or another of the superstar poets, give them that rote, teacher’s-manual interpretation and maybe a little scansion, then move on to something more interesting, like drama or fiction. I totally understand.

Poetry, after all, is difficult to parse. Both the creators and the consumers of poetry tend to agree that poetry isn’t for everyone. It relies on a certain understanding of how sensual imagery evokes certain emotions in a reader, and some people prefer their reading material to be just a little more expressive. That’s ok.

On the other hand, poetry is probably one of our most highly treasured art forms. It’s been practiced and perfected over thousands of years, from the epic heroics of Gilgamesh, Beowulf and the Aneid to the spare and terse modern pieces like Red Wheelbarrow and In a Station of the Metro. In a lot of ways, it hurts the budding writers of the world not to know and understand the hows and whys of poetry. Seeing poetry under the sterile light of deconstruction in a classroom sort of misses the point entirely. God knows Biology labs ruined frogs for me.

So, what I’d like to go over for the next couple of days are a few novel approaches to the teaching of poetry. These are hands-dirty, knee-deep-in-the-stuff kinds of activities that can easily become a part of even the tightest most jam-packed AP English course. Not only that, but you’ll find using one (or, hey, all of them) may actually impart that one idea that seems most difficult to expose to young students getting their first taste of poetry: craft went into the making of these poems.

So, let’s just jump right in, shall we, with today’s: the poetry journal.

The Poetry Journal

First, NO. No. It’s not what you think. I said poetry journal, half of you cringed with the mental image of some black leather journal with an upside down cross on the cover filled to the brim with teen angst and misguided rebellion. No. This isn’t for personal writing (yet, at least).

Instead, you want to bring the concept of the poetry journal out to your students as an opportunity to truly get to know the poems they’ll be studying. Here’s how it works:

The poetry journal will serve as the student’s own personal anthology. Every week, they will hand-write into the journal a proscribed number of their favorite poems. It might be a good idea to set a couple of rules. In the students I mentor, I usually mandate that at least one of the poems they copy in a given week are from the aforementioned poetry superstars. All of them should be published in a recognized literary journal of some sort, and absolutely not amateur work, no matter how fantastically awesome that amateur work is.

The journal has three purposes:

  1. It goes a long way towards providing a method of memorization. While having a stock of memorized lines of poetry isn’t exactly something one puts on a resume, I think that it’s excessively cool when someone can do it. Besides, is education entirely about getting that high paying job? Whatever happened to learning for the sake of learning?

  2. It allows students to truly get to know these poems, to feel their craft. I realize that sounds a little New Agey and metaphysical, but there is some science to it. Writing the poems forces the student to slow down, considerably, and take in every word, piece of punctuation, and line break. That kind of minute attention to detail has a tendency to reveal things about an obtuse or obdurate poem that might have otherwise been obfuscated in your normal, everyday read. Not only that, but this kind of perspective might actually improve their writing of poetry, should your students decide to get into that.

  3. Students actually get to own the poems. It’s not being forced to read the same old crap they always have to read. You’re allowing them to choose exactly what it is they want to copy into their journals, and they get to carry that personalized anthology of their favorite poems around forever.

Working with the Journal

Now, hopefully, you’re sort of starting to see some of the applications of the journal outside of rote copying. Your students aren’t monks, and we don’t want to make the journal about just copying. To that end, there are a couple of neat activities you can do with the journal to keep it interesting.

My personal favorite is the Circle Reading. Pick a light day during the week, pull desks into a circle beat poet-style and have everyone choose something from the week’s copy and read it out to the class. Then, they should give a brief explanation of why they picked it, what’s impressive about it (especially in terms of how the rhythm and construction of the poem work towards developing meaning) and their interpretation of it.

Another really great activity is illustration. Not everyone is an artist, so you’ll want to try and not limit your students to drawing only. One of my mentored students chose to illustrate her anthology with magazine clippings, internet print outs and photos she’d taken. It doesn’t really matter how they do it, so long as they do it. It’s an excellent way to reinforce the efficacy of concrete imagery in poetry. When the students can focus on that hard image, and the emotion it evokes, they begin to realize why poets tend towards the concrete and away from the abstract—something extremely important to both the understanding and writing of poetry.

There are limitless applications to the poetry journal. It stands on its own just as well (I mean, really, how cool is it to have your own, hand-written poetry anthology?), and my ideas are really just a few poor examples of what can be done. Try it out and experiment. And, if you come up with some new things to do, let me know!

Tomorrow: Mirror Writing