Poetry offers us more in less space than any other form of language. Therein lies its appeal but also its challenge. Perhaps the single most powerful thing we can do to promote in learners a sense of mastery is enable them to really see it; help them transform the intensely concentrated language of a poem into much less intimidating visual images which can then be filed away in memory. (I explain in some detail why pictures are infinitely more memorable than words in the introduction to this post, here.)
It’s possible to explore all of the elements of SPIT (Structure, Point of view, Imagery and Theme) through a visual approach but there’s so much to consider here that I decided to focus on just the first of these in this post.
Having reflected on Andy Tharby’s excellent the power of comparison, I also suggest a comparative approach. I’m persuaded that visual discrimination is sharper and more purposeful when we are searching for what is similar and what is different between objects. More fundamentally, though, Andy reminds us that no literary work can be fully appreciated in isolation and that’s an idea I return to below.
Poetry is of course music as much as it’s image. I wrote here about how to teach meter, memorably. However, this rhythmic element can also be presented to students in a visual way, as below. On the left, Rossetti’s Cousin Kate and next to it The Man he Killed, by Thomas Hardy.
Given its inherent complexity, stripping poetry back like this, so that nothing blurs rhyme and meter when that’s the focus, simply has to be helpful.
A productive starting point would be to share with learners just one of the two poems initially. Lets say Cousin Kate. Ask them to look at the text alongside the pattern in order to work out what the symbols and colours represent.
After hearing their explanations, give them the key terms tetrameter, trimeter, iambic foot, and rhyme scheme and then ask them to describe the verse in a series of succinct sentences. Students’ understanding can then be consolidated by removing the graphic from view and asking them to recreate it, using their written explanations as a guide.
After this, the second pattern can be shared. Another poem that scans regularly – but how is it different and how is it the same? Again, ask students to describe it using the correct terminology, perhaps introducing quatrain, before removing it from view and asking students to recreate it.
A discussion about the impact of form on meaning should then ensue. Why did Hardy choose the more simple form? How does it reinforce his narrator’s perspective? It’s obviously important, if we are to move beyond feature spotting, that students consider questions such as these.
More than half of the poems in the Conflict anthology are written in free verse and not therefore amenable to the treatment above. It remains entirely possible, however, to strip them back. A shadowy kind of rhythmic patterning is always present and this can be highlighted visually and explored for significance, as I show later.
Before looking at some examples, though, it’s worth pausing to place free verse in its broad literary context. If students develop a solid sense of overview, rather than viewing the anthology as a collection of entirely disparate parts, both their critical insight and their capacity to remember will be bolstered. We are also reminded of the central importance of comparison here: clearly, learners can only grasp the significance of free verse if they know that other forms of verse are based upon a regular metric pattern. To the unfamiliar ear, the whole point of free verse is lost. This has implications for planning the scheme of work, of course, though I do acknowledge that GCSE courses don’t begin at ground zero!
It’s worth telling students then that the widespread use of free verse is a relatively recent development and this is quite properly reflected in the anthology. Popularised by Walt Whitman and establishing itself as the prevalent form in the C20th, free verse allows the poet to convey a sense of the life’s untidiness and the mind’s struggle to make sense of experience. In a disorganised world, it seems that regular pattern is distrusted and we see this very clearly in the subject matter of the modern poems in the Conflict anthology.
This perspective on free verse will also support students in the unseen component of the exam, of course. Here, they are likely to encounter at least one poem written in free verse. Does its form contribute to a sense of the poet struggling to make sense of a very confusing world? The answer to this question is likely to be yes and the candidate now has a richly suggestive starting point for closer analysis.
In free verse, the content of each individual line dictates its length. However, as suggested, there is usually some kind of linguistic patterning, such as repetition, to replace the regular metric pattern of earlier poetry. In fact, some free verse contains sections that are metrically quite regular, often concluding lines. For critic and poet G. S. Fraser, therefore, “good free verse” does recall its rejected antecedents. It’s “verse which does not scan regularly but seems always on the verge of scanning regularly.” Often, the uncertain and irregular patterning amplifies the modern poet’s search for sense, some fragment of order.
Suggested now is a method for helping students identify and analyse patterning within free verse, again by stripping it back and highlighting this element visually. In the examples below, Half Caste and No Problem, the unbroken lines mirror line length and the different colours bring out the use of refrains and rhyme. Clearly, however, there’s potential to introduce other patterning features, such as alliteration, internal rhyme or repetition here.
Depending on coverage of the anthology, a useful starting point would be to set students the task of identifying these poems, from this non-verbal information alone. (I have mentioned in earlier posts the importance of activities which keep all poems ‘alive’ for the duration of the course.)
As before, they should then work out for themselves what the colours represent by transposing the information onto the poems. They can then reflect on how the patterning is the same in each and how it is different, and how in both cases meaning is reinforced. For example, Zephaniah abandons his strong and regular rhyme scheme when he moves away from playful illustration to a more direct condemnation of racial prejudice in the poem’s final stanza. John Agard’s tone is one of frustration from the start, hence the exasperated refrain and the repetition of the hateful term “half caste”.
Below are two more examples, Owen’s Exposure and Carson’s Belfast Confetti, with teaching points immediately suggesting themselves.
It’s also entirely possible – and indeed desirable – to combine older poem with modern. Explore, for example, the driving, strident rhythm and robust end-stopped rhymes that Byron employs in the Destruction of Sennacherib with the faltering rhythms and unsettling pararhyme in Exposure or the chaotic, fragmented structure of Belfast Confetti. Contrasting attitudes towards war are reflected in structure and form just as surely as they are in language.
A few ideas there then about helping students to really see and understand poetic form and structure, but many more suggest themselves. For example,
- Present the entire anthology in this way (or as many poems as have been studied) and ask students to label them. (Returning to an earlier post on bolstering memory, effortful retrieval is by far the most effective, so students should be challenged to do this without reference to their anthologies.
- Present each graphic on a separate card and ask students to categorise them, either as directed or as they wish – this group is free verse, these are the ballads and so on.
- Have students create the resource themselves by working out the patterns and a way to represent them through a visual code.
- Ask Student A to describe the form of a poem to Student B who must then render it as a graphic, according to instructions.
Any further ideas, suggestions, reservations – please do drop them in the Comments box.
Thanks for reading!