10 October 2012

Teaching Poetry in Modern Languages degree programmes

In April 2009, I was invited to speak at an Exeter University workshop on teaching poetry. In my presentation I wanted to share something about the strategies I use and the ends I imagine they serve. So I started with some reflections on poetry’s place in the curriculum I teach: why it’s there; where it is exactly; and what it is I’m broadly trying to teach. Then I talked about the materials I use and how they are presented and why. Then considered some future possibilities for developing my practice and the resources I’m using. Here are the main bits of what I said:

My motivation for teaching poetry is rooted in an ideal of research-led teaching: I work on poetry and therefore want to bring some aspects of that specialist practice into the classroom. My motivation also stems from an interest in the values poetry makes available or reinforces for cultural life, even if the poetry is primarily produced for a foreign culture and retains its foreignness. On the other hand, in day-to-day work justification for poetry’s place in the German curriculum tends to revolve around other things: first of all, whether it has student appeal; managers want to know that the module is popular, that the feedback questionnaires are broadly positive; they like to hear that it promotes learning about Germany and the German language; or something more general along the lines of “if you can read a poem, you can read anything/any text”. I’m aware of these justifications, and I do bear them in mind, but I don’t think they yield any viable starting-points for how and what to teach. I’ll come back to them later though under the “side-effects” of teaching poetry. Of much more direct influence on where I have started with teaching poetry are the setting of my teaching and the students’ learning backgrounds.

I teach in a University department which is made up of Politics and Modern Languages. That is partly why I have chosen to give my poetry teaching a thematic focus. Political poetry in German is also the second semester of a year-long module on German literature. Because the first semester is on political drama, one of the first ways into thinking about poetry is that we consider whether what makes a poem political is the same as what made the plays political – some of the categories we kept returning to with drama – especially the concern with fact versus fiction – don’t seem to work for the poetry.

Students studying this module in their second year of undergraduate study come from a variety of learning backgrounds: some study English literature and therefore already have a technical vocabulary and are used to writing commentaries for instance; at the other extreme, others’ only introduction is the first year German Culture programme where we do one seminar on Expressionist poetry. Some students have little previous exposure to poems at all. This is not all bad however. Short texts are less intimidating than long novels; accessible to some extent to the unprepared; also provide lots for the conscientious to go at, so I find that the poem is a very practical text for teaching mixed-ability groups as long as they have some level of advanced literacy.

However, the students are reading poetry in a prose world. Their predominant experience, even their exclusive experience, of reading is an experience of reading prose. This seems to me to be more crucial than the prevalence of visual culture or the virtual world – students certainly read text but it is almost always prose. So to start with I want them to notice how poetry is different from prose. Having thought how best to lead conversations about poetry, I have the students focus on how poems work before making claims about what the poems might be saying.

On top of the otherness of poetic language, we have the extra otherness of the German language, which the students only know secondhand. The plus for interpretation here is that the foreign language curbs the wilder excesses of the most personal responses to the poems. Students tend not to lose sight of the value in bending to the demands the text makes upon you – with foreign-language poetry, everything cannot be about the relevance to the self but reading is about intimacy with the foreign.

Because we are reading poetry in a prose world, my emphasis is on how poetic language works, how its properties like concision and patterning keep alive the difficulties of meaning, how the speaking voices of poems allow provisional identification with alien identities and situations. But obviously it’s no use saying it to them like that at the outset.

One introductory tool I give the students at the beginning is a concept-map or spider diagram. The purpose is to help them make notes on any poem, noticing how it uses language and how that usage impacts on the meaning as well as the sound and feel of the text.

Concept map for studying a poem
Of course the danger is that they end up only listing features or making a description of the text rather than analysing it, so I present this concept-map as a prompt to note-taking and ask them to prepare a poem or two for each weekly seminar discussion. I don’t give any formal lectures when I’m teaching this half-module of poetry and I never sketch a history of German poetry. Rather the emphasis is on readings – it’s totally text-centred – and the students hopefully get that fact from the concept-map, with the poem at its centre. In the first session, I separate out these things: just titles for example, a list they have to discuss what expectations are raised by title alone; just layout on the page, without meaning of words…I later provide a glossary of poetic terms, but for the start, it’s these things that I want them to notice, record, and then integrate through discussion. The students tend to see the need for technical vocabulary as a result of looking at poems using the map.

I present the material in several forms – first as a print-out. In the seminars we start with teasing out what the different students have found in reading a page or two pages. So far I have taken my thematic focus to selecting the texts very simply – most are overtly political in the way that they are titled or dated, in how they relate to a political event or conflict, or articulate a political imperative – but I would also like to develop a more nuanced sense of the political poem – where context counts as much as text. A text that is not overtly political can become highly politicized in context - in the context of a rigid cultural policy and so forth. But in the first instance I have selected poems which are pretty uncontentiously categorised as political poems. Each week I give the poem or poems to be prepared for the next week on a sheet of paper.

The sheet has the poem title and poet’s name and the text and the date. Students have negligible info about the poet. The date is a prompt - like a final line almost – indicating how near or far from events/amid them/different generations of Holocaust poems for example. Slavery still existed and under debate when Heine wrote his poem about the slave ship. The idea of people seeking to act on contemporary events through poetry is often quite a surprise to students. The text is in the middle of a broad-margined sheet, where they can write their comments and notes on individual lines and words – having it all on one sheet makes it easy to remember in the seminar what they have to say.

Audio clips are a valuable resource although I’ve had nothing but mishaps in terms of getting the things to play in shoddy seminar rooms. Audio clip of eg Celan reading his own poem Todesfuge – the material presence of the poem is different then; very moving reading. Available free online. Many not available of course but good to pick one or two where we have a recording. Sometimes written to a historical moment, sometimes a more general political plea – for activism perhaps. Poems exhorting readers - and it is often a collective readership that is appealed to – to change attitudes or take action or desist from action. Important to hear it as a group and read by a native speaker of German and a practised reader for recording purposes.

Equally, the students themselves read the poems aloud: they try out the physical sounds for themselves – often read better after have discussed poem than before. At start then, often I read the poem or use an audio clip and at end one of them reads it and I ask them how it’s different hearing the poem from seeing it on the page and what it’s like reading it aloud themselves. Sometimes they come up with the idea of surrendering the self to another culture’s voice or an idea of the greater intimacy with an alien voice when they read out themselves. There is also often a new awareness of the memorability of the poem and how this is linked to its rhetoric and its repetitions.

I’d like to come now to the poem as a pedagogical text, the teaching of which has side effects that relate to other skills and knowledge being developed by studying for a degree in German. Whilst teaching poetry for its own sake, there are links to other areas of the curriculum such as translation and cultural history. Translation in the sense of comprehension, unpacking resonances and connotations, sometimes a play on words, sayings, twisting conventions of expression or word order, to make it memorable. Some translations are online; some translations published in collections. Some are not translated at all anywhere. Each possibility is useful in seminars. Above all, I find it fruitful to ask students what the English paraphrase cannot capture. Translation in sense of carrying into another culture German-specific culture and history: wars, national conflicts, Nazism. Builds on previous cultural awareness and extends it. I offer one seminar looking at resources online pertaining to the famous poem Todesfuge - critically appraising what is there, how a poem is packaged in terms of cultural history, how a poem is translated into English. Students often like to do the judging rather than being judged themselves – so I ask them to rate different translations of the same poem.

Ideas for future teaching: I’m looking into digitising texts – despite the copyright problems – so we can link to words and students could present their interpretative work on a text in electronic format – using links to add points of analysis and translation and commentary. Electronic annotation, using hyperlinks needs some IT know-how especially regarding html. But no footnotes cluttering text and no lengthy linear analysis written separately from the poem. Working with the text on screen has advantages over text on paper. Example of clicking on the title to see a few lines on the expectations it raises etc. Motivating for students to publish a piece of analysis online. Gradually could build a collection of online resources created by different year groups. Obviously couldn’t keep doing the same poems though. Best might be some of the poems I teach which are not famous, the writer is not a big name, they are not discussed anywhere online and they haven’t been translated into English. But then the copyright problems are insurmountable as these are also the living, or at least recent, writers.