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The Practice and Love of Poetry

By Lennox Odiemo-Munara and Jean Bett Department of Literature, Egerton University, Egerton, Kenya A Discursive Lecture Delivered to Bondo English Teachers, March 4, 2010 In a recent publication, The Composition of Poetry (2009) the renowned Kenyan author, Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye, posits that poetry seeks a synthesis out of conflicting ideas and emotions; and that it is meant to be “dynamite”, that is, able to “attack” in order to indelibly draw attention to itself. Macgoye’s contention is that the poem emerges as “dynamite” when the poet internalises “serious practice and love of poetry”, (Odiemo-Munara, 2010: 12). Macgoye’s view seems to be in tune with James Reeves argument in his classic text, Understanding Poetry (1965), in which he holds that: The love of poetry is an affair of the heart. No one can talk you into falling in love, or talk you out of it, or persuade you to love poetry rather than anything else. Falling in love can occur suddenly, irrationally and when least expected. Falling in love with poetry, however, is different in some ways from falling in love with a person. You can fall out of love with a person for quite insufficient reasons. You may mistake infatuation for being in love. This is not likely to happen between you and poetry, unless your earliest acquaintance has been on the wrong lines. Moreover, between you and poetry there can be no such thing as unrequited passion. Poetry cannot refuse your advances, cannot refuse to give you as much as you give to her. Poetry is incapable of coldness, coquetry or infidelity. The love of poetry must also be an affair of the head. A two-year-old may fall in love with nursery rhymes for their pretty sound, but unless there is some sense in them, something to appeal to his dawning intelligence, his love will not take root. (4, first emphasis added)

noting that “the best poetry is inclined to be shy [and] needs ‘bringing out’” (ibid. And.). in this sense then. 157) we become alert to the functioning of poetry. Classic Writings on Poetry. if it comes short ever so little of the summit. we are charged with introducing our pupils/students to the genre of poetry.). sinks to the bottom” (qtd. It is with this submission in mind that poets such as Christopher Okigbo. but it is not stories. Eliot ought to be understood and hence demystified. created and invented for the delight of our souls. and the “best he can do is introduce you to poems of all kinds. but unless its language is vital. and live it at that” (ibid. it may tell a story.). tell you which he likes best. It may express the whole range of human emotion. fresh and surprising language. because. as well as how to approach the genre as its practitioners and teachers. and corrected down to the smallest detail” (ibid.I quote this at length because it gives us insights into the functioning of poetry. but the moment we come to the realisation that: [p]oetry is language. That is inescapable. But does the above intimate then that poetry is an impenetrable genre that should only be left to “the poets” and those initiated in the “tradition”? I do not conjecture it that way. fresh and surprising. 2 . these emotions will be blurred and ineffectual. but it is not ideas. Wole Soyinka. And the idea of demystifying it then lies squarely in the elaboration by Horace in his classic Ars Poetica that “so poetry. Poetry. We may get ‘intimidated’ when a poet like the Nigerian Christopher Okigbo declares that he does not write/read his poetry to the non-poets. is vital. good poets are ever endeavouring to heed the call that “[Y]ou my dear fellows … you must have nothing to do with any poem that has not been trimmed into shape by many a day’s toil and much rubbing out. then. in Harmon. I emphasise (the first emphasis) because as teachers of poetry. 2003: 72). and the modernists such as T. S.). it is the fresh and original utilisation of the various resources that language affords that makes poetry at once poetry. (Reeves. and also ‘mystified’. It may contain ideas. “an affair of the heart that no writer can make you fall in love [with]” (ibid.

Let us note that poetry specifically and directly invites its readers to engage in reflection on the meaning of experience. to demystify. criticise and read some more of the excellent examples available in all places and times” (Macgoye. In essence. to be a good decipherer of these meanings. attempted. 2009: 73). it calls on the reader to equally labour in deciphering the meaning/s inherent in the poem. just as the same applies to the writer. the final resource. Auden notes that “poetry is the only art people haven’t learnt to consume yet like soup”. develop a genuine sense for the practice and love of poetry. is it often taught poorly? To grapple with these questions. H. rests not so much in the established meaning of a text. when it is taught. And. analyse. The question then is whether we. like the value of the other genres of literature. 3 . in the introductory part of this essay. a thing we have. it is out of experience/s that poetry is made (poem itself begins as a past participle of a Greek verb meaning “to make”). Discursive Reflection in/to the Space/Genre of Poetry The English poet and essayist W. Because. as in the relationship formed between the text and its readers.So if in the composition of poetry the poet him/herself has to labour in trimming into shape the final text. as teachers of English/literature.  Why are teachers of English afraid of teaching poetry?  And why. we need to be alert with the nature of poetry as a genre. have internalised the idea and love of the art and craft of poetry […] So then. in brief. is to “read and read. the poem. The Meaning and Value of Poetry It is appropriate to hold that the value of poetry.

If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off. though meanings still exist.  Robert Frost: Poetry is one permissible way of saying one thing and meaning another. Allow the students to amend and refine as they ‘grow’ in the genre. a one that should not be seen as absolute and closed. what is this genre that invites its readers to engage in reflection on the meaning of experience? Here are some reflections by poets themselves on what poetry ‘could be’:  William Wordsworth: Poetry is the imaginative expression of strong feeling.  Emily Dickinson: If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me. rather than a mandate to memorise or rehearse previously constructed interpretations. African American …. we should emphasise the avoidance of such statements as poetry is difficult.) 4 . Note: Realise the diversity in the reading/s of what poetry is by these practitioners in the craft. but present the process of definition as an evolving one. Avail to the students a wide variety of poems and then ask them what they have in common. European. Eliot: The poet is occupied with frontiers beyond which words fail. Attempt to define what poetry is.  T. Introducing Poetry In introducing poetry.So then. once again. Asian. (A wide variety indeed. I know that it is poetry. African. I know that is poetry. it’s the most complex of all the genres of literature …because such statements only help to far remove poetry from the immediate grasp of the young learners. S. Perhaps the lesson for us as teachers of poetry should be to try to see teaching poetry as an invitation to response.  Percy Bysshe Shelley: Poetry is the record of the best and happiest moments of the best and happiest minds.

in all these. But as teacher (and secondary reader). abstract threatening thing. the notion that should be collapsed is that of poetry being purely an academic activity/exercise. Two Approaches to Teaching Poetry The teaching of poetry can only be enjoyable and meaningful (to both the teacher and the student) if is approached from the premise that poetry is a ‘refreshing’ genre that draws from our day-to-day experiences and not some arcane. be able to ‘control’ interpretation/s. for example. they may be able to se the difficulty in capturing poetry with a single definition. the poetry of Langston Hughes) visual/concrete images (as is in most lyrical poetry) topical youth issues (see.In asking the students to reflect on the similarities and differences between the wide array of examples. start by selecting poems that are inviting and accessible to the learners [as adolescents. they can readily recall related experiences that serve to call into attention the meaning of the poem. You should be able to find out what appeals to their emotions best (develop an awareness of how and why particular poems will appeal to your students). You also need to assume that students are coming to a poem ‘fresh’. it is only that poetry is “the best words in the best order”. As well. explanations of what poetry is by poets themselves can be viewed for their varied perspectives/readings. teen-agers]. and hence you let them ‘own’ the poem. In this way. for example. and hence requires of both the teacher and the student some patience in reflecting the various significations of the images and diction used. Selection of Poems In order to not mystify poetry. 5 . Kwani? literary magazine writings) And. for instance: enjoyable rhythm or rhyme (see. That even if the poem appears impenetrable.

performance of poems. however. Reading poetry aloud: this has several merits. Beware. In this reading process.the poem. (a) the sense of the poem can come alive through the sound of it – students should be actively 6 . endeavour to enhance weekly poetry readings. writing of poetry… You should also incorporate poetry as a vital component of other units – topical. Approach 2: A Focus on the experience of poetry In here. not to distance/remove poetry from students’ immediate experiences and lives. during the 2003/4 academic year.) Some Strategies of Understanding Poetry The basic counsel in understanding poetry is to read and re/read the text (poem) informed by the various components that constitute the final product of the composition of poetry -. issue-oriented. A necessary process would be the use of real poets in the classroom. or historical. thematic. This has the capacity to make students view poetry as alive. inter alia. and students of literature as well as other nascent writers found her workshops and readings a more inviting way of appreciating poetry. the following strategies can prove useful in the understanding of a poem: i. author Oludhe Macgoye was invited as writer-in-residence in the Department of Literature at Egerton. you should discuss the general characteristics of poetry and then apply those characteristics to a variety of poems. robust and vital. (For instance. including.Approach 1: Underline the qualities of the genre In here.

to translate their love letters. the process may help them ingrain them. models. their teen-age experiences into poems and (directionally) encourage peer response.involved as readers and observe the intricacies of reciting/reading [rhythm. And even with these strategies. but a discursive. You need to provide students with patterns. iii. Caution: Resist the temptation to simply ask students to begin writing poetry. Students’ own poetic composition should be seen as ‘windows to their hearts and minds”. It can never be a simple. to make the poem (s) part of them. we can help students appreciate poetry more. ii. this is informed by the fact that oral response is more directly and fully reflective. Writing poetry: in integrating the reading and writing of poetry. for example. as in integrating the reading and writing process in the current KCSE integrated approach to the study of English. linear process of reading the poem and extracting meaning. tonal variation …]. (b) responding aloud to poetry – students should be given the opportunity to talk through their interpretation of a poem. and should be delicately encouraged. let us note that responding to poetry is a complex process. Consider asking them. sometimes circular process in which readers are called upon to employ various strategies:  restating  associating  paraphrasing  hypothesising  interpreting  seeking closure  connecting 7 . formulas…. Memorising a poem: in asking students to memorise poems they value. as this makes the process of writing poetry less threatening and intimidating.

knowledge is reassuring.’ Ignorance is frightening. “Responding to poetry: High School Students Read Poetry”. In other words. ‘I don’t like this poem. however common it may seem. how not to take anything for granted. the mythologies …. It’s Dumb’. as teachers of poetry.S Eliot to the university literature students. usually mean. (My personal experience in teaching Soyinka and T. Students who say. ‘I don’t understand this poem. the traditions. often reveal to me how intimidating I have been in over-assuming -. we ought to self-evaluate ourselves in light of how our students perceive their ignorance/knowledge of poetry. for instance. (72) Haply. over time. the allusions.that the students are aware of the images. allegorising  evaluating … An Illuminating Observation Consider this observation from Robert Blake and Ann Lunn in the essay. Few students are aware of the processes available to them for a satisfactory reading of a poem. I have learnt. and my teachers – who always know what every poem means – always make me feel stupid.) Some Perspectives in Understanding Poetry The following perspectives could be utilised in enabling students respond to various categories of poetry:  Textual perspective  Social perspective  Cultural perspective  Topical perspective 8 .

yet could capture the imagination of his students very well in poetry: He had a passion fro poetry and read a good deal himself. a wide knowledge of poems which appealed to all levels. like his pupils. and like teaching. an ability to read poetry aloud and talk about it at the pupils’ level – but seriously. He believed utterly in its value. a profound belief in the pupils. That is by no means to say that poetry itself is ordinary or simple. In lieu of conclusion We can hope to continue reflecting the more on the love and practice of poetry.) I believe that this is what it means to love poetry and to involve/seduce our pupils into this love. and this. William Harmon. 9 . I wish you well as you endeavour to ingrain the practice and love of poetry. (xiii) The study of poetry offers a lot to ourselves and our students – it [to our students] offers the imaginative. But if you stay alert. obviously enables them grapple with the various realities of life. and he expected his pupils to enjoy learning. and that it could be made accessible to everyone … the secret appeared to be a deep personal conviction. you can hear poetry in many places besides a classroom. He was not a paragon. a wide variety of classroom activities. he seemed simply to like poetry.Another Illuminating Observation This observation is of a teacher who had been trained in the sciences and not in English/Literature. to engage in the practice of poetry as teachers of English. I hope to show that while poetry has been many things to many sorts of people. critical and creative thinking …. it has not been remote from the daily lives and work of ordinary people. editing the marvellous Classic Writings on Poetry (2003) sets his agenda as. I can thus only hope that we will create spaces for ourselves and our students to always stay alert to the immeasurable pleasures of poetry. (Travers in Coran and Evans (Eds. it isn’t. and an inspiring classroom manner.

ed.References Beach.). Reeves. Veper Monclair. London: Heinemann. NJ: Boynton Cook. in Bill Corr Coran and Emrys Evans (eds. in The English Journal 75(1986). Molly. Columbia: Columbia UP. Understanding Poetry. Oludhe. William. 2010. Feb. “Responding to Poetry”. and James Marshall. Texts. Classic Writings on Poetry. Teaching Literature in the Secondary School. Blake. Lennox. The Composition of Poetry. 2009. Readers. Lifestyle 12. 1991. 1965. “Priceless Tools for Creative Writers of Prose and Poetry”. 1987. “Responding to Poetry: High School Students Read Poetry”. Travers. in Sunday Nation. 10 . 68-73 Harmon. 21. Odiemo-Munara. Nairobi: Nairobi University Press. Marjorie Macgoye. James. Robert. and Ann Lunn. Richard W. Teachers. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 197-217.. 2003.