Another Look at Teaching Poetry
by Cirilo F. Bautista
With summer around, can teachers’ conferences be far behind? For the teachers of literature, these will be for the purpose of assessing and evaluating their effectiveness in the pedagogy of fiction and poetry. With poetry specifically, there are certain questions that will have to be re-answered in the light of changing classroom realities and social concerns. Here are some which I am asked often in conferences and discussions, and my answers—
1. What poems do I take up in class? This should not really be a problem, since it is assumed that the teacher knows his students, their intellectual character and social background, the material resources of the library, and the objective of the course. With a little imagination to work on these conditions, the teacher should be able to determine what poems are available and suitable for classroom use. He must relate them to the students’ political, religious, personal, and cultural values and realities, otherwise, the poems will be strange pieces of writing to the students. The teacher must not forget that, above all, a poem is a sociological utterance and cannot be understood outside the domains of social relationship.
2. Is there only one interpretation of a poem? The richness and value of a poem resides in the multiplicity of meanings that it offers. In this sense, the more interpretations it has, the better, since this indicate a wide magnitude or university of appeal. Readers may have a variety of reactions to the same poem, for they have different personal and social circumstances. No interpretation is better than another—it can only be profound or relevant considering the aspects of the poem being studied. The only rule is that these interpretations, to be acceptable, must not contradict each other but must sustain, strengthen, and support each other. If not, some error of analysis has been committed, and the teacher must re-examine the reading. There is not only one interpretation of a poem, be it a good or a bad poem, for language has a variety of effects and significance to different readers. Indeed, one may read the same poem several times and get different meanings each time. One may concentrate, for instance, on social aspect on the first reading, and on the political aspect on the second reading, and on the religious aspect on the third reading; his interpretation will not be the same on the three readings, but they will not cancel each other. In fact, they will show the rich layers of meaning available in the poem.
3. Should we teach only poems in the traditional style or poems in the modern style? It is better to teach both. Classical verse (those with definite rhyme-schemes and meter) and free verse and all its varieties, are valid means of poetic expression. The teacher must know their history and characteristics so that he can point out to his students certain areas of similarities and differences between these two modes. Free verse, actually, is only free from definite meter and rhyme schemes; in all aspects, it is governed by strict rules prosody linked to its philosophical framework. Free verse and traditional verse can also be seen as simply means of linguistic expression, and not as ends in themselves. We cannot, therefore, say that a poem is good because it is written in traditional or in free verse.
4. How do we know if it is a good poem? We must remember that a poem is “good” not in the moral but in the aesthetic sense. A poem is a good poem when, using the artistic and linguistic materials demanded by his craft, the poet is successful in fashioning he rich multiplicity of meaning earlier mentioned. The good poem changes the reader for the better—it makes him realize, through its skillful mergence of form and content, the authentic state of human conditions. He personalizes his knowledge when he applies it to his own individual situation. Thus, we say that the poem “inspires” us or that we “learn” from it.
5. What is the best method of teaching poetry? This is the most asked question, and the most difficult to answer, considering the mysteries of pedagogy. But it seems that the method is best which achieves the best results. Since environmental factors differ from classroom to classroom and from region to region, the teacher should be innovative enough in his approach. Because he will encounter many problems making his students understand and appreciate the poem, he must adapt his teaching techniques to his milieu. For instance, he must employ audio-visual devices to concretize the ideas in the poem and make students grasp poetic principles. Drawings, pictures, audio- and video-tapes and anything of such nature available can facilitate poetic learning. At the same time, they will help students in justifying or confirming their own interpretations.
Originally published in the Philippine Panorama, April 23, 2000.