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To numb or to tickle? The problem of poetry as an exam-instruction

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Article by Kate Dempsey © 28 April 2012.
Posted in Guest Blogs ().

Another in an occasional series on teaching creativity in the classroom by poet and teacher, Dave Lordan.

Normally, when school-students encounter a poem , their reaction to the poem is determined by the poem’s past readings and interpretations, as these  are relayed to them by  their textbooks and  teachers.

A poem seems to come with  ready-made instructions on how to read and interpret it , and if we do not stray too far from these instructions we will do well in our exams. Because, the whole point of learning poetry in the first place is to pass exams and get points, isn’t it?

With orthodox teaching, the poem, in effect, becomes nothing but a set of instructions on how to pass an exam. It is completely instrumentalised. It is a dead thing to be used and then, once it has served its purpose, discarded. The school- student has no real personal input into either expressing or deciphering the poem. She merely copies what has been done a million times before.  The world of the poem is stripped of all subjective and creative elements and reduced to a cold imprint of the objective.

The poem, in order to transmit itself as exam instruction, also requires inertness and object-being  on the part of the student. The student must allow the poem as exam-instruction to be imposed upon them, or risk failure, and, along with failure, humiliation. Learning a poem in school is not that different from going to the dentist- a numbing injection.

The relationship between students and poems is thus essentially the same as the relationship between students and needles. We only allow them into us because the alternative is even worse. The poem, when it enters the lair of educational planners, is tortured and killed. Thereafter it is lab- resurrected as an electrical slave and put to work on our children as an inert transmitter of inertia, a stonething turning others to stone, as a sadistic implement, used as means of distributing the social sadism of the exam system which divides, excludes and punishes.

In a  system of mass-production the poem- or at least the teaching of the poem- becomes just another symptom of a mass production, and all of its evils. Because poetry is served to them so coldly, only a very small minority of students can ever be expected to warm to it.

This is a tragedy. Poetry is our greatest human cultural resource and it should be a goal of any humanising education system to give everyone a way of positively accessing it. Is the mass indifference/distaste for poetry resulting from it’s “educational” misuse inevitable? I don’t think so. Although it would, like so much else, require transformational changes both inside and outside the education system to bring school students- i.e  everyone- into  the living creative relationship with a living and creative poetry that is their human birthright. I don’t know how such change  would be done on a big scale, but   I have seen it in working in a small way in my creative writing workshops with teenagers, and others.

The first thing to get into students’ heads is that poems are not made of stone, but of clay. That poems are malleable, not fixed. That we can manipulate them and in doing so impose ourselves and our interpretations on poems, rather than the other way around.

A simple performance game will do this. Break the class into groups of three to four and send the groups off to different corners of the classroom. Give each group a different poem from the curriculum and give them a couple  of minutes to read it.

Now, return to group A, composed, let’s say of 4 students. Tell two students to kneel down and pretend to be altar boys. Tell one student to be the priest who must read the poem in a LITURGICAL INTONATION – the altar boys amening after each couple of lines. Tell the fourth student to be a drunken priest who rambles in half way through the poem.

In group B, composed of three students, instruct two students to read the poem in as aggressive a manner as possible while pretending to beat the third student.

Group C you can give an extremely sad poem and make them read it as if it were hilarious, breaking down with laughter.

Group D can sing their poem as if it were an Elvis number.

And so on. Use your imagination. Allow the students to use their imaginations.  Let them do whatever they want to the poem.

In the end the students can all perform in their group for each other, as long as they have had a bit of practice.

The effect of all this is that the poems get opened up a bit to the students and no-matter how much they hate poetry they are able to have a bit of fun with it. And being tickled by something is much better for us than being numbed by it, surely.


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KATE DEMPSEY runs writing.ie's Poetic License blog and is our poetry guru. She is a writer and a blogger living in Maynooth. She writes fiction and non-fiction as well as poetry and is widely published in Ireland and abroad, in magazines, anthologies and on the radio. She fits this around her family and a full time job, writing on the sofa, on the train and in that little coffeeshop on the corner.

Poetry can be a solitary activity and she appreciates the support she received from the online community, particularly when starting out. She is excited about continuing the dialogue with her blog here.

Read Kate's post chronologically.

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