Thursday, 18 September 2014

How do you teach Poetry in Schools?

Today, when the whole Senior Programme met in the school, a lively debate erupted concerning the teaching of poetry. The moderator of the meeting, the Senior Programme leader floated the idea that poetry should be open to interpretation by students and that students should be allowed to come up with whatever they thought was the meaning of the poem.  My colleagues entered into the debate in a healthy way and voiced their reservations about allowing students to set out on a free for all interpretation of what they thought was the message of any poem they read in class. The other teachers on the team felt that it was the teacher’s duty to identify at least the theme of the poem. The debate went on until I felt I had to step in. My assertion was that all interpretations were valid as long as they were supported by relevant proof in the form of quotations from the poem itself, or for that effect biographical evidence. While no doubt, one of the prime reasons for teaching poetry according to the CBSE is to enjoy poetry and appreciate the poetic form of writing, the question is, what do you do if the student misinterprets the message that the poet wants to put across? Another question arising out of this debate is whether we as readers of poetry are really interested in the message that the poet wants to get across to the reader. Take, for example, Shelley’s poem, “Ode to the West-Wind”. Do we as teachers of poetry have a duty of informing students that the message of this particular poem is that there is a Silver lining in every cloud, or that there is light at the end of every tunnel? Do we as teachers take the initiative of telling the students that Shelley wanted to convey the message of hope in the midst of tribulation, that he was undergoing a lot of problems and that he somehow felt that he could gain hope from cycle of seasons, that autumn the season of death is surely followed by spring the season of rebirth? While undoubtedly, the very meaning of poetry is based on the figures of speech, rhyme and rhythm, metre and regularity, there are times, however, when there is a hidden meaning which might require the facilitator to step in and guide the learners towards it. Take for example poems that are deeply influenced by events taking place in history, or for that effect crisis being faced by the writer at the time the writer was writing the poem, doesn't it make sense to give some background information on the poem and the poet before starting to read one? 
While no doubt, the mechanics of a poem might be analysed through the figures of speech and the symbols employed, does it mean that these might lead the student to the message that the poet wants to put across? In many cases, this might work, but then how does a student get the meaning of the poem unless he researches the poet and his background, and the phase of life that he was going through? While some poems might have an easy message, might it not be possible that the poet could have included a hidden meaning in the poem? How then do you lead the student to the hidden meaning of the poem if you do not step in as a facilitator? Take, for example, the Poem, An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum by Stephen Spender. Would it not be pertinent to tell the students that Stephen Spender was a poet who had experimented with Socialism as a means of addressing the economic disparity that exists in the society as the root cause for the economically weak students studying in the school in the slum  not being able to benefit from the fruits of  education being provided to them?
When I showed to my students a poem I had included in my collection of short stories titled The Andromeda Connection, A Journey in time, my students, who are incidentally my best critics expressed their inability to comprehend what I had written. The poem, written in the form of free verse is based on the Nanking episode which took place during the second world war. I had tried to depict a pyramid in the first stanza followed by an eye in the second, and what I though would be an accurate depiction of my themes in a pictorial form built out of a collection of words. My students did understand the significance of the pyramid, and the tree, but then they expressed a difficulty in understanding the portion that depicted the eye. I had to finally tell them how to read the stanza depicted in the form of the eye. I am pasting below the poem itself so that you can see what I had written and what had puzzled my students:

The Pyramid

Top of the pyramid
A single open eye looks down at
A long line of humanity straggling on to the pyramid,
Feeding it with the despair of the defeated and the hopeless,
As they walk in a daze, routed from their homes, the old and young - men
Women, children, and suckling infants, all feeding  an ever-growing hunger for
Bloated egos, a desire to dominate. As the day grows, the pyramid keeps growing,
The single eye keeps moving away, ever watchful, silent, but the heart beats no more!

About the
A mother laments,  For the eye          heartlessness
  Of those that           That watched from top            feed on the milk
Of Human         Was the heart of Humanity          Kindness.
Silent n’ calm.
Ruthless, unfeeling!
Green fields

Stretch forth, far as the eyes can see,
A promise of good times yet to come, a bumper harvest
Promised through drops of blood and sweat. A reward fair,
For toil and struggle, assuaging a hunger that
Binds us all. And as the spring flowers blossom
In colours so bright,
They rest in shades that soothe, the old and young,
Lovers and children, a celebration of life as a precious gift! For a gift
It be from the Almighty Lord, why waste it with guns and blood shed, cutting short
A child’s song and a lover’s promise?
And the eye watches
From afar, as the men
Stand guard, watching
And watching as the pyramid
Grows in height, a Mass of
Humanity that that would
Have worked on the Paddy-
Fields, tilling and planting,
A harvest rich for the plucking,
Themselves a harvest,
Cut before their prime,
Interrupted dreams, and
Broken promises, songs
Cut short by a whimper,
The bark of a gun, and
A violent shove in the back.

I finally had to tell my students that the second stanza is meant to read as: “A mother laments about the heartlessness of those that feed on the mill of human kindness.” And the portion in the centre meant to represent the human eye is supposed to read as; “For the eye that watched from top was the heart of humanity, silent ‘n’ calm.” What I as a poet wanted to get across to my readers were the three different themes in my poem, namely the first stanza depicting the pyramid of dead bodies of the natives of Nanking, the second stanza being the eye of the Almighty Lord that looks on the doings on mankind, the eye of conscience, and the third stanza which is in the form of a tree suggests that life goes on in spite of the violent deeds that man might visit on others. My students found it difficult to interpret my poem and needless to say, I had to step in as the author of the poem and their teacher. It was only after I had explained the message and the reason behind the peculiar structure of the poem that the meaning did click in for them! The moot question for me as a writer of poetry and a teacher of literature is whether the teacher should not step in from time to time to guide students to the true meaning of the poem that the poet wanted the reader to arrive at. My argument here is  whether the objective of teaching poetry is to appreciate  the point of view of the writer of the poem or just to steam roll his point of view and arrive at a myriad of interpretations that the reading of the poem might lead to! In many cases the student of poetry might arrive at fantastic interpretations of the poem which the writer might not have even had in mind! My repeated question here is,j do we simply ignore the message the poet might have intended to pass on, or do we just put in our own interpretation on the poem fantastic though they might be and hurt the expectations of the poet? Can we afford to ignore the fact that Coleridge’s intention in writing the poem, Rime of The Ancient Mariner was to bring out the theme of crime and punishment or divine retribution for those who harm nature for no rhyme nor reason?
Poetry is no doubt a genre of literature that is abstruse, vague and open to interpretation, however, it goes without saying that every poet has a message to pass on to his readers, and it is up to us as teachers and readers of poetry to respect and understand the poet’s point of view about life, and for that effect the message that he or she wants to pass on to the readers! My students did berate me for not adding to my poem titled, The Pyramid, instructions about reading the poem. I replied that I wanted to let the reader guess for himself the true symbolism of each stanza. I told them that I didn’t want to tell the reader about the meaning behind each stanza. They were not happy with my explanation and they very categorically stated that I should have given a hint supported by instructions on how to read my poem. As a teacher of English literature, and a writer of poetry, I can’t help asking myself if I as a teacher would be doing full justice to the poet by not leading my students to the message that the poet wanted to give. Many of  those who read my poems  of come up with interpretations of my poems which are so off beat and beyond my wildest imagination that I certainly feel offended and angry at times. Sure it was my poem, so what right did the reader have of putting in an interpretation of my poem that was not even in my wildest of imaginations? If we really want to respect the poet and the message that he wanted to give to his reader, then surely we as teachers of poetry need to ensure that the poet’s intention in writing the poem should be respected as sacrosanct, and we should simply not allow the student to arrive at an interpretation that goes against what the poet had intended while writing his poem. Let us end this debate by agreeing that the intention of the poet, and the message that he wanted to pass on need to be safeguarded by the teacher as a guardian of poetry. If my readers plan to put in interpretations into my poems that I had never intended, then surely I will stop writing poetry and instead devote my time to the writing of thesis papers where there is no scope for errors in interpretation of what I had intended while writing my poem!
If the purpose of writing poetry is to express one’s feelings, ideas and interpretations about life, then let us not ride slip-shod over what the writer of the poem intended to express, let us pay tribute to the poet and not in any way hurt his sentiments by arriving at interpretations that he had not dreamt in the furthest of his creative imagination. It is therefore the duty of the teacher to protect the integrity of the poet’s thought while teaching poetry to his students! To ride roughshod over the aspirations of the poet would surely be a travesty of pedagogy!

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