Formal poetry is challenging to read, to write, and especially to teach. But the investment pays enormous dividends. Teaching formal poetry is a lot like teaching computer programming: both are challenging subjects, and both require technical skills, but both are also essential to the healthy intellectual life of individuals and society.
This article originally appeared in the June 2015 Edition of UKEdMagazine. To purchase a printed copy, click here.
And like computer programming, teachers and students need to understand the potential of formal poetry now more than ever. An interview with Oxford Professor of Poetry Geoffrey Hill points to recent problematic definitions of the word ‘creativity’ in the media:
take a word like “creativity”, or “creative”: …that used to be associated with creating things of intrinsic value. It now has come to mean, “believed to possess entrepreneurial skills”…. it is not the writing of music, or anything like that.
Entrepreneurial skills are important, and not every person should feel that they need to devote their life to ‘creating things of intrinsic value.’ Yet poetry, like music, requires an important set of technical skills (linguistic, visual, and mathematical) to understand. These skills do not relate only to poetry; they can strengthen and enrich any life, from the educator’s to the entrepreneur’s.
As an educator who has studied both arts and sciences, poetry and computer programming, I enjoy pointing out the connections between them. Formal verse, like computer code, requires an internal logical and linguistic architecture in order to ‘work.’ A good poem, like a good computer programme, is usually written in reverse: the writer starts with the functional goal in mind—in the case of poetry, the effect of its final lines—and then works backwards in order to produce this desired result. Language teachers and debate coaches can use analysis of formal poems—such as many of Shakespeare’s sonnets, or Andrew Marvell’s ‘To His Coy Mistress’—to show students how effective self-expression requires thinking in advance, and the careful formulation of logical and emotional arguments.
There are excellent poetry resources available for teaching primary school students the basics of rhyme, metre, and figures of speech like onomatopoeia and synecdoche. At secondary level, the problem for educators and students becomes removing the training wheels: making the leap from reading, to reading Shakespeare. Formal lyric poetry (the building blocks of Chaucer and Shakespeare’s narrative and dramatic verse) has been gradually losing its place in a curriculum increasingly crowded by STEM subjects and skills for workplace-oriented reading and writing. But some educational practices in the humanities over the past few decades have made a bad situation even worse.
What not to do
One dangerous strategy is to simplify poetry for secondary students by teaching only ‘accessible’ free verse and prose poetry. (Anthologies of modern poetry published with the curriculum in mind bear some blame for this trend.) Students then read poetry without gaining the fundamental skills and knowledge it requires. This is like learning maths only by using a calculator, or learning music only by watching music videos.
As an even more dangerous strategy, time-pressed teachers might attempt to simplify poetry by buying into a common myth of artistic creativity: that poetry is a mode of pure self-expression rather than a skill-based practice. In this case, there is no right or wrong interpretation of a poem or image; no evidence-based critical reading; no knowledge of history or literature required to read or write; nothing to poetry apart from ‘inspiration’ and a pen or a keyboard.
Of course, the past 450 years of enduring English poetry would not exist without deep feeling and ‘inspiration’— but nor would they exist without their authors’ extensive reading, long thought, and above all, rigorous technical skill developed over years of practice, like any good painter, musician, architect, or engineer.
One More Civil Gesture: formal verse for literature students
Contemporary poets rarely write with a market in mind. The poems in One More Civil Gesture, however, share a common goal: despite their variety of subjects and forms, they try to demonstrate how contemporary poetry can be simultaneously formal and readable, technically challenging and accessible. The poems are formal, but not written in outmoded grammar and style. They delight in images from modern culture, and language that can catch the ears of secondary students tuned to the ingenious off-rhymes in hiphop and R&B.
The book’s subjects and themes are accessible to secondary students, and a few poems (such as ‘Moray’ and ‘Pink Dog’) might be suitable for primary level. There are poems on ancient history (Genghis Khan; soothsaying in the late Roman Empire), modern history (the breakup of the Soviet Union; Cyclone Nargis in Burma), nature and wildlife (coelacanths, sea urchins, cuttlefish, magpies, stoats), Eastern and Western mythology, and Japanese culture (from sushi to kabuki theatre). A number of poems explore the afterlives of characters in well-known Shakespeare plays such as Othello, Hamlet, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The book includes examples of poetic styles including ode, elegy, and pastoral. Brief notes at the end of the volume provide clues to exploring the poems.
Poets, for their part, have a responsibility not to tell educators and students that poetry is ‘easy’: this ultimately proves a losing strategy, since it creates a cycle of lowered expectations and diminishing returns for readers, society, and the arts. Instead, understanding that poetry is an exciting challenge with clear rewards encourages both teachers and students to enjoy mastering technical skills like scansion, rhyme scheme, and allusion.
These skills are applicable far beyond the ‘creative’ life. Formal poetry connects literacy, numeracy, and subject knowledge in ways that make poetry an ideal medium for interdisciplinary teaching. Maths secondary students can marvel at how the 44 stanzas of Paul Muldoon’s ‘Incantata’ (in The Annals of Chile, 1994) sound conversational while using a single, symmetrical rhyme scheme. History students already read the poetry of the First World War, but they can experience the chaos and dismay of World War II in wellknown formal poems like Auden’s ‘The Shield of Achilles’ and Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal, or rarer gems like the poems in Raider’s Dawn by Alun Lewis. And no history textbook can communicate the first-hand experience of the French Revolution and the Terror like Book 10 of Wordsworth’s epic poem The Prelude—written in language as fresh and natural to our ears as it was in 1805. Nor are poetry and science mutually exclusive: science students may share the feelings of a young Seamus Heaney in ‘Death of a Naturalist’, or they might be inspired by the exactness of observation and terminology in Marianne Moore’s animal poems—compare ‘The Pangolin’ and ‘The Jerboa’ to hear the difference between free verse and formal verse, by an artist skilled in both.
I hope that the poems in One More Civil Gesture help encourage a new generation of readers and writers of formal poetry in English
C. E. J. (Christopher) Simons is a Senior Associate Professor of British Literature in Tokyo. He holds a D.Phil in British Romanticism from Oxford. His criticism and poetry have appeared in publications including the Independent, Oxford Poetry, and the TLS. Find him on Twitter at @cejsimons.