Poetic Pain: Teaching Poetry to High Schoolers

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During the holidays, I met up with a longtime friend who, like me, teaches high school English. He told me that he was going to be teaching a semester-long poetry class at his school, and he asked if I had any suggestions. Here’s what I said:

Pick poems that you like. I you think a poem is good, chances are it will show in the way you teach it. Granted, there are times as an educator when you have to teach material you don’t personally enjoy, but it’s hard to fake enthusiasm for a poem you don’t like. If you like the poem, the kids will sense this, and if you’re lucky, they may find themselves enjoying it too.

Use songs to teach poetry. Music is a natural bridge between the students’ own experiences with poetic ideas and the more sophisticated forms of language you would like to introduce them to. I suggest picking some songs you personally enjoy. If you are old like me, the chances are pretty good that they’ve probably never heard the song, thus making it a fresh experience for them. You could also select songs you know they listen to, or better yet, have the students select a song and present it to the class as a poem.

Go from simple to complex. Or as C.S. Lewis phrased it, “The highest cannot stand without the lowest.” Start with engaging and accessible poems to get the students used to thinking about poetry from a variety of perspectives before moving on to more complex discussions of form and structure. Find poems that center on the notions of “life and living” rather than the more erudite topics most of us had to digest in school. Granted, a dense poem like Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” is a superb work of art, but unless you want to bleed the life out of your students, I wouldn’t begin there.

Use a variety of poems. Students will probably never like every poem they read (who does?), but the more poets and styles they encounter, the more likely they will find some material they connect with and enjoy.

Use imitation. Have the students create lots of different poems in several different forms. For example, if students are asked to create a parody of a famous poem, it forces them to know the features of the original very well. In the process, they will build their understanding of poetic forms and structure, and at the very least, they will come away with a much more thorough understanding of that work than they ever would have achieved by simply reading the poem.

As an English teacher, I would love it if my students enjoyed poetry as much as I do. The reality is that most don’t, and if we are honest, it is schools that are partially to blame for this. I know I can’t change every student’s attitude about poetry, but my hope is that by adopting some of the strategies listed above, perhaps I can help the kids who really hate poetry to hate it just a little bit less.

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Is This A Test?

Very recently, I lost faith in the community in which I teach. By not passing the budget override, voters doomed our schools to larger class sizes, lower salaries, fewer programs, and lower morale. I understand the schools are notorious for poor money-management, but the failure of this override to pass has crippled education in the community.
Do people today value education? What price does society pay when education isn’t valued?
The educational system itself is not immune to fads. The pendulum swings and pedagogy changes, but one observation I have made over the past several years is that it seems many young people are ambivalent toward their education. I’m sure there have always been students who haven’t liked school for whatever reason, but the numbers appear to be growing. The drop-out rate continues to rise. The number of students failing classes simply because they refuse to do the work required has grown by leaps and bounds. The trend is disturbing and the repercussions could be even more frightening. Are we witness to the death of education? If so, what does it mean for our future?

“Words, words, words.” (Hamlet, II.ii.192)

This week, a student of mine gave me the latest issue of National Geographic which features an article about a church in Sicily that contains the remains of nearly 2000 mummified corpses.  While the photographs of these centuries-old priests and parishioners were repulsively intriguing, one portion of text jumped out at me:


“A number of bodies are still kept in their elaborate coffins.  Gingerly, I lift a heavy lid that may have not been moved for over a century and peer inside.  The air seems to escape with a thick sigh, and the smell grabs the back of my throat—not a rotten smell but the odor of beef tea and the clogging aroma of dry mold and fine, powdery layers of human dust.  It’s a smell that is dramatically unforgettable, the tincture of silence and sadness, the scent of repeated prayer heard from a distance, or of remorse and regret, a smell that’s both repellent and intimately familiar.  Something sensed for the first time, but also with a strange and compelling sense of déjà vu.”


Wow!  Although I’ve never encountered the realities of death and decay on a level like this, the descriptive power of these lines transports me to a place that is worlds away from my own experience, and for a brief moment, I gain a sense of what it must have been like to peer into the abyss of this author’s mortality.  Such is the power of words, and as a writer, I am both intrigued and intimidated by lines that capture the essence of an experience as poignantly and profoundly as these do for me.


I think all writers struggle at times to give shape to their characters’ experiences, although some authors appear to do it so effortlessly.  For example, take a look at Charles Frazier’s depiction of the Confederate hospital in the opening pages of his novel, Cold Mountain:


“At the first gesture of morning, flies began stirring.  Inman’s eyes and the long wound at his neck drew them, and the sound of their wings and the touch of their feet were soon more potent than a yardful of roosters in rousing a man to wake.  So he came to yet one more day in the hospital ward.  He flapped the flies away with his hands and looked across the foot of his bed to an open triple-hung window.”


Or watch how Frazier relays the details of Inman’s battle wound:


“At the hospital, the doctors looked at him and said there was not much they could do…They gave him but a gray rag and a little basin to clean his own wound…But mainly the wound had wanted to clean itself.  Before it had started scabbing, it spit out a number of things:  a collar button and a piece of wool collar from the shirt he had been wearing when he was hit, a shard of soft gray metal as big as a quarter dollar piece, and unaccountably, something that closely resembled a peach pit.  That last he set on the nightstand and studied for some days.  He could never settle his mind on whether it was a part of him or not.”  


I read lines like this and I wonder how anyone could describe that scene better than he has just done.  Likewise, witness James Joyce’s description of Stephen Dedalus’ encounter with a young girl in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.  Those familiar with the novel will recall that this is a transformative moment for Dedalus as the young, would-be priest decides to turn his back on a religious vocation and instead devote his life to artistic pursuits. 


“A girl stood before him in midstream:  alone and still, gazing out to sea.  She seemed like one whom magic had changed into the likeness of a strange and beautiful seabird.  Her long slender bare legs were delicate as a crane’s and pure save where an emerald trail of seaweed had fashioned itself as a sign upon the flesh.  Her thighs, fuller and softhued as ivory, were barred almost to the hips where the white fringes of her drawers were like feathering of soft white down.  Her slate-blue skirts were kilted boldly about her waist and dovetailed behind her.  Her bosom was as a bird’s, soft and slight, slight and soft as the breast of some dark-plumaged dove.  But her long fair hair was girlish, and touched the wonder of mortal beauty, her face.”


Or consider how another Irishman, Frank McCourt, depicts the people of Limerick as they seek refuge from the rain in his memoir Angela’s Ashes:


“The rain dampened the city from the Feast of the Circumcision to New Year’s Eve.  It created a cacophony of hacking coughs, bronchial rattles, asthmatic wheezes, consumptive croaks.  It turned noses into fountains, lungs into bacterial sponges…From October to April the walls of Limerick glistened with the damp.  Clothes never dried:  tweed and woolen coats housed living things, sometimes sprouted mysterious vegetations.  In pubs, steam rose from the damp bodies and garments to be inhaled with cigarette and pipe smoke laced with the stale fumes of spilled stout and whiskey and tinged with the odor of piss wafting in from the outdoor jakes where many a man puked up his week’s wages.”


These authors all display an amazing knack for bringing their scenes to life, and it’s fun to allow their words to transport us into their worlds, both real and imagined.  Other times, it’s interesting to see an author searching desperately for just the right words to convey an experience.  For example, witness John Wesley Powell’s description of the Southwestern landscape in his 1895 travelogue, The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons:  


“The landscape everywhere, away from the river, is of rock—cliffs of rock, tables of rock, plateaus of rock, terraces of rock, crags of rock—ten thousand strangely carved forms;  rocks everywhere, and no vegetation, no soil, no sand.  In long, gentle curves the river winds about these rocks…When thinking of these rocks one must not conceive of piles of boulders or heaps of fragments, but of a whole land of naked rock, with giant forms carved on it:  cathedral-shaped buttes, towering hundreds or thousands of feet, cliffs that cannot be scaled, and canyon walls that shrink the river into insignificance, with vast, hollow domes and tall pinnacles and shafts set on the verge overhead;  and all highly colored—buff, gray, red, brown, and chocolate—never lichened, never moss-covered, but bare, and often polished.”


You can almost feel the tough, one-armed explorer groping for the perfect combination of nouns and adjectives to help render a tiny glimpse of this vast and virtually indescribable landscape.  Now anyone who has seen the Grand Canyon will likely agree that, even as skilled as his descriptions are, Powell still comes up a bit short.  But his attempt is certainly better than most, and at the very least, you have to admire his courage for trying.  Ultimately, that’s all any writer can do, and like Powell, we must forge ahead and give our best efforts despite the nagging fear that we may fail. 


Those of us who enjoy reading and writing often return to our favorite passages from our favorite books simply to enjoy the scenes once again or, perhaps at some level, we hope to somehow absorb a portion of the talent reflected in those sentences.  Great descriptions refresh and inspire us, and like thirsty pilgrims drinking water from a well, they sustain our creative souls.  If we are lucky, perhaps we will find the right words to transport readers into those worlds crafted deep inside our own imaginations. 


“She’s A Lady…” (Female Archetypes in the Western Tradition)

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In examining heroic archetypes, I am struck by how few examples there are of heroic female characters in ancient narratives. Heroic male protagonists abound in the pre-Shakespearean canon, and they usually fall into distinct categories (warriors, teachers, fools, tricksters, etc.). By contrast, the heroines of the ancient world are not so easy to categorize, and their roles in a narrative often overlap into multiple areas—much like real life! Even among people who write about the topic, there is little consensus as to which categories exist or where individual characters should be placed.

One way we could approach the topic of female archetypes would be to start in the middle of the Western literary tradition and see what came before and after. In medieval Romances, for example, a woman is depicted as either an innocent maiden, a wife/mother, a temptress, or an old crone. Today, this pattern continues to hold sway, even in modern TV dramas and sitcoms (consider Gilligan’s Island or Desperate Housewives).

Maidens are certainly a staple of many fairy tales, like Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Repunzel. Princess Leia falls into this role (at least until the gold bikini episode), and some would argue that Hamlet’s love interest, Ophelia, is an innocent victim (although the jury is still out on her among critics). Other times, the maiden serves as a Platonic ideal of friendship and companionship, such as Dante’s Beatrice. For many, it is the girl’s innocence that adds to her appeal (think Nancy Drew, Lewis Carroll’s Alice, or Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz). Of course, there is also the type of maiden who is described as a “waif”—a poor girl who suffers at the mercy of the cruel or indifferent world around her. The Little Match Girl, Cinderella, and Jane Eyre fall into this category.

Like maidens, the character of the dutiful wife and mother has plenty of literary precedent. Among the Classical deities is Hera, the mean-tempered but long-suffering wife of Zeus. Penelope faithfully keeps the Ithican home fires burning while her husband, Odysseus, is gone for twenty years. Welthow serves drinks to Beowulf’s men while her husband, king Hrothgar, listens to the warriors’ speeches. And who can forget Elizabeth Bennet’s quirky mom in Pride and Prejudice or the ever-pleasant June Cleaver?

Another female archetype is the woman in charge—the boss or the crusader. The Greek goddess, Athena, is a good example of this, as is the Wife of Bath from The Canterbury Tales. Antigone of Greek tragic fame and the Biblical Esther are the two earliest examples of civil disobedience, and they demonstrate a woman’s ability to undermine male authority through their courage and their wits. Modern writers have crafted plenty of women who are in charge: Wonder Woman, Lara Croft, Emma Peele from The Avengers, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Xena are good examples.

Along the same lines as the woman in charge is the survivor, with the main difference being these gals do not get to dictate the terms of their circumstances. Moll Flanders and Hester Prynne overcome enormous odds to emerge heroic at their end of their stories, as do Scarlett O’Hara and Celie from The Color Purple. Others like Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Madame Bovary, and The Awakening’s Edna Pontellier are not so fortunate, although many see them as making heroic—albeit, controversial—choices.

Of course, where would the heroic stories from both the past and present be without a temptress? The earliest piece of literature known to exist, the Epic of Gilgamesh, includes a harlot who seduces Enkidu, thus causing him to fall from grace. Odysseus faces not only the Sirens but also Circe (who turns Odysseus’ men into swine) and Calypso (who imprisons Odysseus and his men for seven years). The Romantic poet, John Keats, immortalized the siren-esque figure of “La Belle Dame sans Merci” (“The Beautiful Woman Without Pity,” a title Keats borrowed from a fifteenth century French poet, Alain Chartier). Lolita functions as a temptress in Nabokov’s tale, as does the Lady of the Castle in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (although she is also portrayed as a faithful wife, making her one of the more complex characters from the medieval tradition).

Other female characters use their feminine powers and personalities to destroy. Storytellers and theologians sometimes blame Eve for humankind’s downfall, and Pandora’s mistake echoes these same sentiments. Delilah uses her womanly charms to trap Samson. Salome conspires with her mother, Herodias, to trick Herod into killing John the Baptist. Shiva is the Hindu destroyer, and Morgan Le Fay devotes her life to undermining everything her stepbrother, Arthur, tries to build. Helen of Troy functions as both a temptress and a destroyer in bringing about Troy’s downfall, and likewise, Guinevere’s involvement with Lancelot unravels the chivalric fabric of Camelot.

Old crones are not as common as many of the other female archetypes, but they certainly have their place in narratives. Fairy tales are replete with wicked old witches, and many of them seek to do harm to innocent maidens. Modern sitcoms have made ample use of older women, but usually in a more positive sense. Alice from The Brady Bunch, Aunt Bea from the Andy Griffith Show, and Granny from The Beverly Hillbillies are all reliable caregivers, and their role is to function as protectors and advisors to the younger cast of characters.

To me, it is interesting that in ancient stories, most of the female archetypes exist not so much in the human sphere but among the deities. It is not until after Shakespeare that narratives begin to incorporate females who display the same level of complexity as their male counterparts, and this became even more the norm after Jane Austen, the Brontes, and other eighteenth and nineteenth writers brought the novel into its own as an art form. Today there is certainly no shortage of literature written by, for, and about women, but even so, these writers continue to borrow from types and forms that have existed for centuries.

I am sure there are many other categories of female character types I’ve overlooked in this brief overview. So let me know what I’ve missed so that we might continue the discussion.

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“Come, trusty sword…” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, V.i.335)

by Scott


I’ve written before about using archetypes to help my students make connections between various stories and films.  One of the most common archetypal devices storytellers use is the notion of linking a particular object to a hero.  This association often occurs early in a story, and it is a process Christopher Vogler refers to as “seizing the sword.”  Sometimes the object is literally a sword.  For example, the young Arthur Pendragon must successfully draw a sword from a stone and anvil in order to become “King of all England by right of birth.”  Later, he is given the sword Excalibur by the Lady of the Lake, and with it, a magical scabbard.  Likewise, Beowulf uses his ancestral sword Hrunting to defeat various monsters, and when this sword breaks during the fight with the dragon, it signals the hero’s impending death and the eventual demise of his society. 


In Greek mythology, the fourteen year old Theseus lifts a giant boulder to find a sword and a pair of sandals that had been left there for him by his father.  This discovery sets the young hero on a quest to defeat the murderous monsters Sinis, Procrustes, and the Minotaur.  In the same vein, Luke Skywalker’s journey toward his destiny begins when he receives his own father’s “sword”—a futuristic light saber. 


While there are plenty of other examples of heroes seizing sharp, pointy weapons to fulfill their quests, storytellers sometimes use other objects to convey the same idea.  The God of the Israelites gives Moses a staff which helps to defeat the Egyptians and lead his people to the Promised Land.  Gandalf also has a staff which proves useful on numerous occasions in The Lord of the Rings saga.  In the film The Natural, Roy Hobbs carves a baseball bat (an interesting variation on both the sword and the staff ideas) from a tree that had been struck by lightning.  This bat would go on to serve Hobbs faithfully on his path to Major League greatness.  When Josey Wales finds a lone, wooden-handled pistol in the smoldering debris of his family’s cabin, he teaches himself to shoot and becomes the killing scourge of the fallen Confederacy.  And of course, what would Indiana Jones be without his Fedora and bullwhip?


I find it intriguing that so many storytellers down through the ages have relied on such simple concepts to bring their heroes to life.  Yet as simple as this archetype may be, the range of personalities associated with these swords and sticks is as wide as the human spectrum itself.  So while weapons and technologies may have changed, the basic motivators of human behavior have not, which is certain to make for countless more archetypal heroes in the centuries to come.