Delight, Wisdom, and Cutie Poems

I’ve always liked this observation from Robert Frost: “A poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom.” With most poems, students can find something that delights them—maybe an evocative image, playful wording, or a compelling situation. The wisdom is sometimes harder to discern. A poem can be frustrating for students if the message is sophisticated or obscure. One of the challenges of teaching poetry is helping students see and understand how a poem makes that transition from delight to wisdom.

I use the term movement to describe how a poem builds itself section by section, adding layers of meaning and information, until it arrives at an ending with just the right words to provide a reader with some new understanding. This process is obviously artistic, abstract, and slippery for many students. But if students become comfortable with the concept of movement in poetry, their analytical tool belts are better equipped to understand and analyze poems that land in their worlds. (Movement is a term that has been used on the poetry section of the Advanced Placement Literature and Composition test in the past. More recently, that test has used more generic terms: elements, techniques, devices. Movement is an example of each of those more general terms.)

To help students gain expertise in understanding movement in poetry, I first make sure they understand the literal meaning of a poem by discussing unfamiliar words and allusions, noticing any patterns or repetition, and talking about how the poet’s diction contributes to the poem’s tone. (Tone and diction are also important concepts for students preparing for the AP Literature and Composition test.)

Then I ask students to separate the poem into sections, which I compare to opening a Cutie, one of those mandarin oranges that are suddenly ubiquitous in advertising. How threatening can a poem be when it’s comparable to a Cutie? I do not tell them how many sections a particular poem has. In fact, however each student divides the poem is fine. It’s impossible to do it wrong as long as the separation is done thoughtfully. The number is not important; what is important is that the students see that parts of a poem can be separated into idea chunks that may or may not be in sync with line or stanza breaks.

After all students have drawn lines on their copies of the poem to indicate those chosen sections, I ask them to give each section a little label, one or two or three words. This helps students condense their understanding of each part of the poem into a manageable linguistic unit. Then students explain to each other or to the class what they notice about how those sections build upon each other until the poem arrives at the ending’s “wisdom.”

This year I tried a new wrinkle. We were finishing our time with Mona Van Duyn’s “Near Changes,” a humorous but challenging poem. After class members divided the poem into sections and labeled those sections, I asked them to ignore the poem and, concentrating just on the labels, write their own poem using as many of the labels as possible. This forced students to think about how those shorthand labels interacted with each other in various ways. When every student was finished—after about five minutes or so—I asked them to return to the original poem and choose a word or phrase from it to use as a title for their new poems. This helped them connect their poetically juxtaposed labels with specific language from the poem.

Here are some of the results from our Cutie poems:

“Touch of a Button”
What trivia questions
Explain the change of gods?
Analyzing the technology
Brings fear of freedom.
Go – be free!

Questioning a poem,
a true story from an almanac,
is an author’s interpretation
and an intelligent analysis
of stupidity, anger, hatred, fear,
and freedoms.

“New Shape”
We worry for our future.
Man’s changing environment
is a basis for questions
or maybe a story.

“Coasting In For a Landing”
The incident,
A change,
Newfound freedom,
Exploring yourself,
Finding your identity.

“Profound Story”
How can you help but
question something when
you do not know its
background? Prepare
for some explaining …

The students greatly enjoyed making these poems, and they saw how the Frostian wisdom of “Near Changes” was derived, at least in part, from how Mona Van Duyn arranged the sections of her poem. They were also surprised at how some of their words bumped against each other in ways that can only be described as … delightful.

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