Students often express negative perceptions about poetry. They feel intimidated; they think it’s difficult; they ‘can’t get on with it’. Such perceptions can be self-fulfilling if we’re not careful. How do we get them to appreciate that poetry might be worth reading or even something from which they can derive pleasure? How do we enable them to read and interpret ‘unseen’ poems with care and enthusiasm or at least with some confidence?
I have a strong memory of what it was like to feel confronted by poetry and the tension it created. My first ever undergraduate poetry seminar began rather formally with the tutor asking each of us in turn to say something about poetry, which poets we were familiar with and which poems we particularly liked. Most of us mumbled our way through a summary of what we had done at A-level with no small degree of embarrassment, but one student said with some defiance that she ‘didn’t like poetry’. I remember the awkward silence that followed and the tutor’s stinging question, ‘Well – what are you doing here, then?’ Unfortunately, that student left the room never to return. What we should have done is tried to have a robust dialogue about poetry. But that didn’t happen.
A healthier way to address this ‘problem’ of poetry is to have this dialogue with your GCSE students as soon as you can. The question ‘what is poetry?’ is worth asking. Provide some definitions for them to respond to and get students to formulate their own definitions too. Take the time to explore poetry, in the hope of demystifying it, before expecting them to read and interpret a poem independently.
A simple group exercise like ‘Poetry Jumbles’ can help students appreciate poetry’s inventiveness and diversity. Jumble up the words of a poem and ask groups to reconstruct the poem from the jumble of words . Using short poems such as William Carlos Williams’ The Red Wheelbarrow or Tennyson’s The Eagle makes for a more manageable task. You could use these poems and this activity as a way into free verse and poetry organised by rhyme and metre.
The unseen poetry section of the GCSE is really challenging, and many students will understandably be nervous that they won’t ‘get’ the poems provided. I suggest you give them this simple piece of advice: you can’t read a poem in the same way as you might consume information on a phone or read a story or novel. To read a poem, you need to slow down. There usually isn’t the same narrative pull as in an article or novel so no skimming or scanning. A poem, by its very nature, is short and condensed, so there’s no need to rush the reading. You also need to sound out the poem in your head. You need to read it a few times too. This way, your students will be in a better position to connect with it and engage with its meaning.
Practise a new kind of reading with in your classroom, where everybody reads silently but ‘aloud’ in their heads before you read part or all of the poem. Encourage your students to share the reading, by reading a couple of lines or by identifying a puzzling line. Make the reading as communal and collaborative as you can. Pausing is also important. Dwelling on a phrase or a line is a signal that words which snag attention are worth reflecting upon.
Equip your students with a simple framework to think about poems. Ask them some straightforward questions to get them going, such as:
- Does the title give you any clues as to what the poem is about?
- Which lines help you to understand what the poem is about?
- Is there anything you can say about the speaker?
- What emotions can you detect?
- Are you aware of any patterns in the words used in the poem?
At this stage, keep the questions simple and avoid abstract questions such as ‘how is language used to convey ideas?’, or ‘how is the argument developed?’ They can learn about the abstract language of examination questions later.
Reading poetry with your class and encouraging students to participate in this process – this is very different from putting them on the spot – is a type of active and experiential learning. Sharing some stimulating and accessible poems together is an inclusive process. Choose poems which you think might resonate with them, ones which have a powerful impact, perhaps about a contemporary issue or a human feeling that is relatable. Take the students along with you – enjoy the words together and create a space where students feel more connected to poetry.
Renée Stanton is the author of the new Collins GCSE 9-1: Unseen Poetry Workbook.
Renée has been teaching English for over 30 years, working at two sixth form colleges and more recently at a university. She has a PhD in English Literature. She has been a Principal Moderator and Principal Examiner for AQA and continues to be involved in external assessment for other specification providers such as Cambridge International (CIE), WJEC and the European Baccalaureate. She now works as a freelance writer and English tutor.