(Teaching) Poetry & Anxiety

Reading Elaine Showalter’s chapter “Teaching Poetry” (in Teaching Literature) reminded me of my own anxiety at the thought of teaching poetry or even of studying poetry myself.  A genre that I can admit is often beautiful and emotion-inducing, poetry has always held for me the same sense of confusion and intimidation most high school and even college students experience.  I vividly remember working with my high school English teacher during lunch before an upcoming essay examine as he tried to explain to me the meaning of Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” No matter how many times or how many ways he tried to explain it to me, I was baffled.  I could do nothing more than repeat back to him exactly what he told me; there was simply no understanding on my part.  While not all poetry still inspires fear within me (I find narrative poems to be for the most part accessible and enjoy Edgar Allen Poe’s dark poetry and Anne Sexton’s fairy tale revisions in Transformations, for instance), I can say that some poetry is still as baffling as it was in high school.  This was brought home to me during my studies for my Qualifying Exam, during which I could finally grasp Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” but remained stumped by his “Ode to a Nightingale.”

Yet while my own limitations in understanding poetry has caused me to wish to avoid teaching it, giving in to my anxiety may prove problematic.  My field of research is 19th-c. British literature, and while the novel dominates the Victorian period, the Romantics at the beginning of the century were all about poetry.  So, if I want to get a job marketing myself as more than simply a Victorianist, I need to be prepared to teach poetry.  And not just any poetry–I need to be prepared to teach…Keats’ odes. ::sigh::

This anxiety concerning poetry and fear of teaching poetry is one I think I need to confront, not only for future job concerns but for my own benefit and knowledge. Can I call myself a scholar of English literature and just ignore poetry, a genre of significant importance throughout literary history? I don’t think I can.  And as I have learned a lot about composition and rhetoric from teaching freshman composition courses, I suspect that teaching a poetry course would be a learning experience for both my students and myself.  Moreover, my own conflict with poetry could enable me to better sympathize with my students’ frustrations.

Should I be given the opportunity to teach a poetry course (and I hope I am), I am excited to incorporate two assignments Showalter explains in her chapter on teaching poetry: The Commonplace Book (71) and Comparison and Contrast between a poem and a prose piece dealing with a similar theme (73-4).  I think both of these techniques would be useful in my own interaction with poetry as well as for students.  The Commonplace Book would seem to encourage appreciation, even if simply aesthetic, as well as offer students a way to informally interact with the poetry and indirectly compile notes and topics of interest they can then use to develop papers for the course.  Similarly, the Comparison and Contrast assignment would further appreciation of poetry as a form of communication while allowing students to interact with a type of literature they are (presumably) more comfortable with and knowledgeable about (prose, that is).  I also must confess that I have always been a fan of writing comparison and contrast papers myself, so there is some bias and sense of comfort for me in this assignment.  Moreover, I think both of these techniques/assignments could be used in any literature classroom (poetry, fiction/novel/short story, and even drama) to enable students to think about literature in new and different ways.

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