Monday, June 14, 2010

Notes on Teaching ENG100: Poetry and Composition

As I was searching the web for other instructors interested in incorporating creative writing into their first-year writing curriculum, I stumbled upon Christopher Lockett's blog. Lockett is an English professor in Newfoundland, who blogged about poetry and his first-year writing class at Memorial University of Newfoundland. Looking back at how he structured his intro to writing course, around the idea that "all language is designed to convince us of something" (first, with persuasive essays, which then lead to short fiction, which then lead to poetry), he wrote,

I hoped to illustrate how that "something" is not necessarily specific, and can in fact possess a multiplicity of meanings—and that very multiplicity resides an exercise in reimagining the world.

Lockett brought up an important point in his post. This "multiplicity of meanings" is more present than ever, in a society that supplies us with range of texts.
I use the word "texts" broadly here, as a text can be anything from a Facebook status update, to a hypertext, to a piece of found poetry. Movies, commercials, advertisements, television shows, blogs, social networking sites, profile pages, photographs, grocery lists, and so on, are all texts. This is what I tell my students on the first day of class. I agree with Lockett when he said that poetry is just another way to reinvent the world.

But why teach poetry in an ENG100 class that's supposed to be dedicated to introducing students to academic writing? (I suppose there is an embedded argument in here for "academic poetry," which I won't go there, not today!)

As a poet and an ENG100 instructor, I find myself with an interesting opportunity to put what I'm passionate about into my first-year writing classroom. Some instructors don't see the usefulness in implementing Creative Writing into the Composition & Rhetoric domain--but "expressivist" theory  suggests that there is a lot that ENG100 classes can learn from creative writing. I am not sold on all that expressivism has to offer, but the kind of ENG100 class I strive to teach has elements of creative writing pedagogy (but is careful not to turn first-year writing into a creative writing class). Peter Elbow and followers of the movement focus on the importance on things like "voice," but one place where I find poetry to be enormously useful is teaching "craft." Craft is what makes poetry difficult to write. Craft is what separates diary entries from sonnets. Craft is what turns formal poetry into experimental poetry. Craft is what keeps poetry relevant. Some students think, however, think that poetry is too boring to read or too difficult to write.

But what if we took the craft that goes into poetry and applied it to composition? Below is a handout I created that focuses on poetic devices that are useful in essay writing (even the research paper!):

Poetry & Composition: ENG100

Similar to literature, academic compositions, blogs, Facebook status updates, film, and television, poetry allows us to see the world from a different perspective. Like the compositions you have been writing and reading in ENG100, poems have a writer, an audience, and a purpose. The tools we use to write and read poetry can be useful for clarity and creativity in composition. Below are the definitions for the tools we will be identifying in poetry and using in our own writing. These poetic devices will help you develop your own writing style.


Alliteration: The repetition of sounds in a line of poetry. Words with the same initial letter (usually consonants) are used in close proximity. Example: She sells seashells by the seashore.

Assonance: The effect created when words with the same vowel sound are used in close proximity - but where the consonants in these words are different.

Rhyme: The effect produced when similar vowel sounds chime together and where the final consonant sound is also in agreement e.g. 'bat' and 'cat'.


Simile: The explicit comparison of two objects/phenomenon/states, etc.  by employing either 'as' or 'like' e.g. 'My love is like a red, red rose' by Robert Burns.

Metaphor: An imaginative comparison between two actions/objects etc., which is not literally applicable.

Allusion: Where a poem makes reference to another poem or text.

Repetition: Repetition of a sound, syllable, word, phrase, line, stanza, or metrical pattern is a basic unifying device in all poetry. It may reinforce, supplement, or even substitute for meter, the other chief controlling factor in the arrangement of words into poetry (UPenn).

Ex: The repetition of a phrase in poetry may have an incantatory effect as in the opening lines of T. S. Eliot's "Ash-Wednesday":

Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn....


Ambiguity: Poet William Empson defined ambiguity as: 'any verbal nuance, however slight, which gives room for alternative reactions to the same piece of language'. Although ambiguity is not desirable in prose, in poetry it can sometimes add extra layers of meaning. Figurative language - such as metaphors - often create ambiguity.

Cliché OR Dead Metaphor: Hackneyed or timeworn expression e.g. 'shifting sands' or 'busy as bees' OR A metaphor which has lost its meaning due to overuse e.g. 'to beat about the bush' or 'one fell swoop'.

Conceit: An elaborate and complicated metaphor. An early exponent of conceits was the 14th Century Italian poet Petrarch. The Petrarchan conceit was imitated by many Elizabethan poets including Shakespeare.

Epigraph: a quotation at the beginning of a book, chapter, etc., suggesting its theme. This is not limited to written texts. Television shows and movies do the same. For example, each book of the Twilight series begins with a different quote. Twilight has the Bible, New Moon has Romeo And Juliet, and Eclipse has the Robert Frost's poem "Fire and Ice"(TV Tropes).

In-class assignment:

You will be split up into groups. Each group will be responsible for finding as many instances of these poetic devices in one of the poems from the packet. Find what you can in 10 minutes, and be ready to present what you found to the rest of the class. Your poem may not have examples of all these poetic devices, but all poems have at least one! 

As always, feel free to use or change this handout for your own educational purposes. The poetic devices I chose are to be discussed and then put into practice by identifying them in example poems. Some of the poems I choose to discuss with this handout are:

Lois-Ann Yamanaka, The Boss of the Food
William Stafford, Things I Learned Last Week
Denise Duhamel, Buying Stock

I like to use contemporary and experimental poetry as much as I can, not only because are these poems are often relevant to recent sociopolitical discussions, but because they address the "multiplicity of meanings" Lockett discusses in his blog post. Poetry can teach us a lot about a society that is constantly and quickly sharing, manipulating, creating, and recreating information. It's important that students exercise their minds as well as their minds' eyes--whether that's discussing the meaning of a poem or writing one. Intellectually, poetry challenges what we know about the world and how we see it. It teaches us that what we see is unique to us--that the way you see the sunset over Hanauma Bay is not the same way I see it, but both visions can offer up something new and exciting about the sky. And it is our individual ways of seeing things that makes the process of writing and reading worth the work. All writing has a message, and poetry is no different. 

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