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Delights of Teaching Poetry

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November 18, 2015

Delights of Teaching Poetry

Poetry offers an excellent medium not only to appreciate (what great minds had and continue to contemplate) the wealth of sublime thoughts and experiences but also offers us an opportunity to search within the deep recesses of our consciousness for similar experiences that we might have had or at least aspire to have.

No other literary genre is as exciting to teach and engage in engrossing reflection, giving the satisfaction of time well spent in productive learning activity as that of poetry.

The medium of poetry offers the readers to explore the wealth of rich personal experiences to resurface and act as a springboard for ruminating over the bigger questions of life through connecting with and relating oneself to the predominant thoughts and overwhelming emotions coursing through a poetic piece. Every human being undergoes myriad experiences that become a part of his/her being, ultimately shaping his/her personality. Such being the power of human experiences, a conscious effort to harness the potential of the human mind through creating new experiences, reinforcement of past positive experiences or even living an experience vicariously through the study of poetry has the potential to make us happy, fulfilled and enriched by appealing to our aesthetic sensibilities when we become alive to the beauty around us, which the poetic medium serves well to accomplish.

Poetry offers an excellent medium not only to appreciate (what great minds had and continue to contemplate) the wealth of sublime thoughts and experiences but also offers us an opportunity to search within the deep recesses of our consciousness for similar experiences that we might have had or at least aspire to have. So ‘decoding’ or to use a banal word ‘paraphrasing’ a poem for mundane purposes like comprehension or understanding the poet’s intent are secondary and often inconsequential to the real function and purpose of studying poetry. Just like there can never be ‘the answer ‘ to a given question, there can be as many interpretations to a poem as there are readers, when they allow a poem to ‘speak’ to them, connect with it in line with their past experiences and aspirations.

Not many teachers share this enthusiasm when it comes to ‘teaching’ poetry (as if one can actually teach something! Remember what Aurobindo said: ‘Anything that can be learnt cannot be taught’) Most often than not the reason for students’ luke-warm response to poetry when it is ‘taught’ in class is the teacher’s persistent effort to present what he/she assumes is the poet’s point of view or his objective in writing the particular poem and also the ‘message’ in the poem. This happens because the poem is considered to be the product of the poet’s imagination or his personal reaction to something that has affected him to an extent that he felt compelled to voice his feelings.

But very often a poem is also a compilation of random thoughts or reflection on anything from the mundane to the profound. So the focus remains on understanding (intelligently guessing) the poem by attempting to work through the labyrinth of the poet’s mind (here we all become practising psychologists) to arrive at the poet’s perspective aided by the interpretation of the teacher.

Now when this approach to teaching poetry is adopted, the teacher unconsciously and inadvertently creates a distance between the poet, the poem and the readers (the students). This results in a disconnect as the emphasis is on learning the poet’s intent and his views, thus making the students passive recipients of erudite knowledge intended for their edification. So can you blame them for their disinterest and non participation in the evocative medium of poetry?

Poetry as a medium employing brevity of expression to convey a profound thought or feeling, invariably uses exaggeration and hyperbolic language to accentuate its effect on the readers. This ‘poetic license’ serves to its advantage by prodding the human mind to plod through the repertoire of individual experiences to ascertain the veracity of the poet’s claims and submissions.

Let me share a few examples to illustrate my point. When I take up the first poem for the academic year in class for students of senior school, I begin with a whole class discussion on the apparent differences between prose and poetry, the different functions that each genre performs and the resultant effect that it produces. And then I go on to state my objective and elaborate the approach we would take up in dealing with poetry. I make it a point to drill into the students the importance of making a personal connection with the poem which can happen only if they allow the poem to ‘speak’ to them by trying to relate to the experience described so succinctly or the predominant thought/ emotion coursing through the poem when the theme is universal in nature. I encourage them to ponder over what they perceive as the poet’s view and response to a stimulus that resulted in the composition of the poem. The students are given ample space and time to reflect on their own experiences that may be similar to one so beautifully expressed in the poem and then record their own thoughts and feelings. The next step would be to relate their personal experiences with those of the poet as manifested in his poem and then use all that to interpret the poem.

The idea here is not to ‘understand’ the poem but use it as an instrument to trigger the students’ thought process and launch them into critical inquiry to dig into the repertoire of their unique individual experiences and reflect on their understanding of the world and share that with the rest of the class. In the process of doing this students make the poem their own and get drawn to poetry which offers endless scope for introspection, contemplation and intellectual discussion that eventually leads to a better understanding of their own selves.

All these assertions stem from my personal experience of teaching poetry to 17- 18 year olds as part of the English Core Curriculum for Class 12 students of CBSE. John Keats’ A Thing of Beauty is one of my favourite poems with which I start my new academic year. The poem is a treasure-trove of rich and meaningful musings and message for mankind, offering a panacea for our miserable existence. The universality of its theme and the uniqueness of its treatment makes it not only a sensory treat but also provides food for thought.

The attempt to engage with the poem experientially is a fruitful experience for me as a teacher. No matter how many times I engage with the poem, each time I revisit it, I am rewarded with fresh insights not only about the poem but also about me as an individual and my relationship with the world at large!

Given below is an interpretation of the poem ‘A thing of beauty’ collectively arrived at through animated class discussions and reflections that went beyond the conventional ‘exam point of view’ and transcended all the traditional classroom conventions.

When we behold a beautiful object, it fills us with indescribable joy! This happiness that we experience is not transient or momentary. It could be everlasting. Happiness being a state of mind can be attained at will just by recalling the beautiful experience. Reliving the joyous moment, again and again by going over the experience in our mind – at mental, emotional and if possible at the spiritual levels – becomes a source of eternal bliss. The mesmerising charm and appeal of a beautiful object never decreases. On the contrary it increases manifold as it is the experience that is responsible for the blissful state and this sensation increases every time we see the source of beauty through the mind’s eye.

When we give ourselves completely to the moment in appreciation of a beautiful thing, it soothes our senses, helps us relax, and rejuvenates us, gently caressing our physical being into slumber, lowering our pace of breathing resulting in a trance like state of awareness. Being alive to the beauty that abounds in the world around us paves the way to a healthy and happy existence!

Whenever we give in to the appreciation of nature and commune with it, we are actually trying to re-establish our severed link with Mother Earth, rekindle the embers of the sacred relationship mankind has had with nature since the appearance of the human race on the face of the Earth and which has been deteriorating with the advent of civilization and the advancement of the human race. Getting in touch with nature is described using the beautiful imagery of a floral wreath. The circular arrangement of flowers signifies completeness and eternity evoking the image of mankind encircling Mother Earth in a gentle embrace. In spite of innumerable disappointments man faces in today’s fast paced and materialistic world, devoid of goodness, sound values and supreme virtues, there is still hope for mankind. In spite of being engulfed by gloom, despair, hopelessness and negativity all around, there is still scope of redeeming ourselves from our meaningless and purposeless existence. This saving grace is provided by communion with nature that helps us establish contact with the all pervading universal spirit/souls of which each one of us is a part – being the physical manifestation of the same.

All we have to do is just look around us find the source of everlasting happiness in the inexhaustible list of beautiful objects in nature like the celestial bodies – the sun, the moon, trees of different hues and sizes providing shade to gentle sheep, daffodils surrounded by green leaves, small streams with crystal clear water that are dotted with thickets which shield them from the scorching rays of the sun in the summer, the wild ferns that grow at will in thick forests, their monotony relieved by blossoms of white musk roses. These are some of the beautiful sights that lift the human spirit enmeshed in dirt and squalor of evil thoughts and actions.

Beauty lies not only in physical objects but also in our perception of life or death or any other grand ideas mankind has been preoccupied with. There is beauty even in the way brave people met their end as their death was as magnificent as their lives.

Because they were not afraid to die, they lived their lives to the fullest, undaunted, fearless leading from the front, inspiring others with their personal example. All the stories of heroic exploits of men and women that inspire us to make our lives purposeful, is also a source of beauty. These stories of mythological heroes and legends of folklore and even ordinary men and women who showed exemplary courage and fortitude in face of trying circumstances, have the potential to transform our lives by making us understand the true purpose of our life and harness our innate ability, will power and wisdom to realign our lives in accordance to the grand design and fulfil our destiny. This elusive search in the eternal journey of the soul gets a direction during the earthly sojourn by being alive to beauty in various forms. And when this happens, it is akin to drinking the elixir of life overflowing from the perennial fountain in the abode of the Gods.

P AjithaP AJITHA is an eager learner, teaching practitioner, who believes that true education is transformational in nature. Teaching according to her is an art that can be mastered through continuous learning and a skill that can be honed through incessant practice and developed through constant reflection but which still remains largely an intuitive process .She entered the profession by chance but continues to stay put by choice. She is a second generation teacher who claims to have inherited the aptitude for teaching as a legacy from her parents and owes them her solid foundation in education by virtue of having studied in Sainik School Imphal . She presently teaches at Delhi Public School, Coimbatore but prefers to call herself a co-learner in the journey of self-discovery she embarks with her students in the process that we call ‘education’.

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