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Thoughts for "On the Teaching of Poetry"

As I republish articles of interest from The Parents' Review, which can be found at the Internet Archive, I hope to post my thoughts about each article here on this blog.

Mary A. Woods writes “On the Teaching of Poetry”, which focuses on two main points: why we study poetry and in what way it should be taught, particularly with regard to children. In this article, I found much that I agreed with and many profound statements which could be applied to other aspects of child education.

Ms. Woods briefly describes varying educational reasons for why some believe we study poetry. She then asserts that we should instead study poetry for its own beauty and purpose and not for any intellectual outcomes which can be derived from it. She writes “Now, I want today to plead for the teaching of poetry for its own sake, as one of the fine arts, ranking with music and painting and the drama, and having similar aims and uses” (Woods).

It is not meant to be read to serve as a moral lesson but, alternatively, to inspire us to see the true, remind us of the good and awaken us to what is beautiful. It is the constant drive to understand how poetry is created over why it is created that destroys its own original intent. Like music and art, we should enjoy how poetry attaches to our hearts-entwining itself around our most intimate emotions and thoughts.

Woods explains: “It is we who, with our petty maxims and theories, to say nothing of our prosaic lives and worldly ideals, have done what in us lies to destroy the poetry that was born with them. We give them any doggerel that will, as we think, convey a moral or otherwise useful lesson, we repress the instinct for time and for tune, for music and for color, for the “something not understood,” which are of the very essence of poetry, and by paraphrase and analysis and elaborate explanations reduce all to the dull level of prose”.

To further advance her point she compares dissecting a flower to what is often done to poetry. “Or, to change the metaphor, we are asked for the essence of the flower, and we pull it to pieces, and examine its petals and stamens, and pronounce triumphantly on its order and sub-order, its genus and its species; but the color and the perfume that made up its life, where are they? The flower-spirit had shrouded himself in these, and when they died he unfolded his wings and fled, and what remains is no flower at all, only lifeless dust (Woods).

Mary A. Woods then goes on to clarify the meaning of poetry, writing: “I would define poetry, then, as the musical expression, by means of words, of thought charged with emotion” and then continues by describing its elements. “Thus the elements of poetry are thought, emotion, music; and I lay stress upon the music, because I believe it to be not only an element essential to poetry, but an element too apt to be overlooked. Poetry appeals primarily to the ear, and its sounds ought to satisfy the ear (Woods). She continues with: “For the child the order I have given is reversed. It is not “thought, emotion, music,” but “music, emotion, thought.” A child will hear and enjoy the music of a poem before he can appreciate the emotion; he will appreciate the emotion before he can understand the thought”.

Now, Ms. Woods goes on to explain how poetry should be taught, specifically to children.

Here are her four main points:

1. Trust the child’s instinct.

Young children need to play with the rhyme and rhythm found in children’s poems, as they are still discerning between sounds, how sounds and words interplay together and then in how they are connected. Children’s poems are often very musical, and like music, children respond to them. Only as they mature will they then be ready to delve into multifarious poems. Children will reveal by their response, interest and attitude which types and levels of poems will best fit them and when they are ready for something more complex.

2. Read to the child, as beautifully as you can read, the most melodious things you can find.

Reading poetry as beautifully as you can not only models how to read poetry, but also demonstrates that the beauty can be found, since you are reflecting that idea as you read. You have found it, therefore they can too. And it’s perfectly natural that their version will be different from yours. Seek poems that match their needs with regard to musicality. Follow the order of elements of poetry for children-let children connect to the musical element first. Next ask them to describe the emotion to be taken from it. From the emotion they can then attempt to untangle the words. Woods describes this order: “Ask him whether the tones are those of sorrow or joy, anger or entreaty, desire or regret. Then turn to the words for an explanation of the emotion”.

Ms. Woods then again emphasizes that putting more advanced poetry in front of children before they are ready is often setting them up for failure. She uses Milton’s poem “Lycidas” as her example to explain this. She reminds us to not sacrifice a child’s love of poetry in forcing an understanding of a poem which is above the child’s connection ability. The skills needed to make sense of a poem of this level are skills which are better built up over time, using more appropriate poems.

Some of my favorite quotes are from this section of the article. They can be applied to other aspects of teaching and education.

  • “Above all, beware of making his knowledge the measure of his progress.”

  • “And meanwhile what he has been learning is not poetry at all, but mere subsidiary knowledge…”

  • “But such knowledge should be acquired, as far as possible, independently of the poem that demands it…”

  • “The training necessary to understand ‘Lycidas’ must not be obtained at the expense of ‘Lycidas’.”

3. If possible, let children recite together, keeping time and tune, and reproducing in concert the music of the original.

Sometimes, it may be beneficial to children if they recite poems with you, with friends or with siblings. Creating this concert together can also help those who are struggling with finding the rhythm of a poem and keeping it as the recitation moves forward. Since the recitation will be a group effort, this allows the other reciters to set the pace and tone for those who need help. A concert approach also provides the skill benefits associated with reading aloud, including attention to enunciation.

She emphasizes the importance of children following the lead of the author, interpreting the poem with as much of the author’s intent as possible. However, she does acknowledge that as children mature, they will begin to bring more of their own thoughts and connections to the poems.

She writes: “No doubt, as they grow older, children will unconsciously give a somewhat different intonation to the things they love, as each leaf and each wave responds with a difference to the breeze that stirs it. But such difference, subordinated to a common impulse, produces not discord but harmony; and meanwhile I know of no better training, at once in a healthy self-forgetfulness and in the dramatic appreciation of a poem, than the common effort to reach the feeling that dominates it, and to reproduce its music” (Woods).

4. As the child grows older, illustrate by paraphrase both the meaning of the poem in hand and the difference between poetry and prose.

Now, we look at a slightly older child, one who has had more experience with reading, reciting and understanding poetry. At this time, your student can begin to learn how to paraphrase a poem, but the method for this is very specifically described by Woods.

She writes: “It is not, on the one hand, the mere skeleton of the poem, the bare thought minus the emotion and the music; nor is it, on the other hand, the poem itself, deprived of its metrical character by the transposition of words. A good paraphrase still reflects the characteristics of poetry, its thought, its emotion, its music; but all these are lowered in intensity; the thought is expanded, the emotion subdued, the music less palpable. We have what is sometimes called a poem in prose, beautiful in proportion to the beauty of the verse it displaces, but differing from it in kind, and perhaps with hardly a word in common” (Woods).

In conclusion, Mary A. Woods goes back to one of her most important points. It is essential that we not over-analyze poetry, especially with children. We will ruin all of its benefits by focusing too much on what structure the poem has, what rhyme scheme it follows and what each word might mean.

Here are two more quotes which supports her position on this:

“Here, too, “we murder to dissect.” We overlay them with comment and criticism and weary explanation, till the music and the passion die out of them, and nothing remains but barren prose-true, perhaps, for the intellect, but with no hold on the memory, no message to the heart.”

“The lessons thus taught are of the kind that strike home earliest and linger longest; they do what argument cannot do, and appeal to faculties more worth reaching than any that it can reach. For intuition is greater than reason, and love than knowledge.”

Applying these quotes to other methods and ideas in teaching is something I may do in another post. Look for another post on “Above all, beware of making his knowledge the measure of his progress” as well as the two quotes above.

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