Seeing the Joy in Poetry
By Sara Judy
The first book of poetry I fell in love with was by the great modernist poet William Carlos Williams.
Most of the cover of this edition of Williams’ Selected Poems is taken up by a black and white photograph of the poet, wearing the formal clothing you might expect of a serious writer: white shirt, black tie, tweed blazer. But instead of being seated at a large mahogany desk or in a posh library, Williams is outside, surrounded by blossoming tree branches; dappled light falls across his face, and he is laughing.
Even as I relished the sweet and chatty “This Is Just to Say,” swooned as I tried to memorize the utterly romantic lines from “The Ivy Crown,” and puzzled over references to Bruegel and the baroque, it was this image of Williams on the cover that I returned to again and again.
As a student, I had up to that point encountered poetry only in the classroom as a supplement—a short text to round out a unit, brief enough to read, study, and finish up within one lesson. At the same time, poetry was presented to me as a serious art, old-fashioned and intensely obscure. Williams, with his grinning eyes squinting in the sun, broke open that seriousness for me. Poetry could be playful and joyful, and it could be about anything.
As an educator and lifelong student of poetry, my relationship to the genre is more daily than for many people, even prolific readers. My colleagues often express a reluctance to teach poetry, citing a lack of understanding themselves about how to approach it and how to engage students in it, and a skepticism that poetry can help serve their learning targets and educational goals.
Part of the challenge teachers and students encounter with poetry is knowing what to “get” out of it. While narrative poetry is a rich and plentiful resource, not all poems tell a story. Similarly, it’s difficult to “get the news” from poetry, as Williams says in “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”; rarely do we read a poem to learn concrete facts.
So, what is poetry good for? How can we read poetry, and read it with the joy and play that Williams introduced to my own poetic reading practice?
1. Poetry asks to be seen.
One way to begin work with a poem is simply to spend some time looking at it. In the Wit & Wisdom classroom, students spend time learning how to analyze visual art. The first and most powerful step in that learning is simply to sit and look at the artwork. Just like a sculpture or painting, poetry has its own shape, and asks to be seen.
All poetry makes the relationship between form and content explicit. But poems that are written for the page, such as shape poems, particularly invite students to look and think about what they see even before they start to read the words.
In Grade 4, Module 1, students begin their work with William Carlos Williams’ most well-known poem, “The Red Wheelbarrow,” in much the same way as I began my reading of Williams’ Selected Poems: simply by looking. Students notice and wonder about how the lines look on the page, where the eye falls, and how the white space around the words gives the poem breath and space. As they read and reread the poem, students begin to examine color and texture as they may do in the study of a painting.
2. Poetry begs to be read aloud.
We might also begin work with a new poem by reading it aloud—working to memorize a poem as I did with Williams, or reading aloud from the page. Poetry, in its play with language, sound, rhythm, and sometimes rhyme, yearns to be heard.
Of course, not all poetry is written for the page. Some poetry, like spoken word poetry, is meant to be performed. In Grade 8 Module 1 of Wit & Wisdom, students watch Nikki Giovanni’s stunning performance of her poem “Nikki Rosa.” This piece provides a chance for students to develop critical listening skills, and to experience the creative and rhetorical power of varying tone, volume, and expression as they develop their own fluency and speaking skills.
3. Poetry breaks the rules.
The word poetry refers to many different kinds of writing. A poem can rhyme, or be free verse. It can be spoken aloud, or read silently. Poetry can take on a strict, established form, or create its own. Poetry can tell an entire narrative, or simply conjure an image.
Whether students start by looking at a poem and thinking about how it is shaped on the page, by reading a poem aloud, or even by reading just one word at a time, there is no wrong way to approach poetry. This makes poetry a powerful scaffold for all kinds of students in the development of their reading skills.
This freedom also extends to students’ own composition. In both modules referred to above, students compose their own poems using the forms they have been studying together. In Grade 4, students work as a whole group to compose a poem about a classroom object based on the style of Williams’ wheelbarrow poem; in Grade 8, after reading and studying Kwame Alexander’s Newbury Award-winning novel-in-verse, The Crossover, students write and perform poetry that helps them tell important stories about their own lives.
Poetry provides multiple opportunities for learning in the classroom, and for joyful interaction with image, sound, and language. Poetry’s often-compact size serves to not only fit within classroom time constraints, but also to help provide an efficient and effective way for students to learn and apply a variety of skills in visual literacy, close reading, speaking and listening, and their own writing.
I have since misplaced my first copy of Williams’ Selected Poems (no great loss since it saves me the embarrassment of reading through my thirteen-year-old self’s annotations), and have fallen in love with many, many more books of poetry. But I carry that image of Williams with me, laughing in the sun, teaching me how to see, hear, and read for the joy of poetry.
Feeling inspired? Check out Wit & Wisdom's Poetry Pinterest Board.
Williams, William Carlos. “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower.” Poets.org, Academy of American Poets, www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/asphodel-greeny-flower-excerpt. Accessed 23 Apr. 2018.
Sara Judy is a PhD student at the University of Notre Dame, where she studies 20th- and 21st-century poetry and poetics. Sara has served as a lead writer for Great Minds' English language arts curriculum, Wit & Wisdom, and currently works to support educators through facilitating professional development.