On Teaching Poetry (Jamaica to Japan)

Another educational piece…This young man, a Jamaican living and teaching in Japan, has written a book: “Jamaica to Japan: A Reflective Comparison of Classrooms and Cultures.”  Take a look at it on amazon.com. Coincidentally, Adam and his wife live in Saitama, in Japan – where I spent some two years of my life after graduating from university. Adam teaches English but loves to talk about poetry, storytelling and creative writing. He used to teach at York Castle High School in Brown’s Town, St. Ann before moving to Japan. Here is a piece he sent me, which I thought I would share with you – all about words, and music. He (and I) would welcome your feedback.

Adam’s book, available on Amazon!

Why is poetry difficult? Everyone loves poetry until they reach high school. When we are faced with ninth grade poetry or above, we tend to get flustered around literary devices, form, and strange word usage. If I were to ask high schoolers, “Which is easier to understand, a song or a poem?” I am 100% sure that most students would vote “song.” But that is because of three reasons, all of which can be easily eliminated.

1) A song is only poetry set to music, and hearing a clear rhythm and instruments tells your brain that whatever you are hearing is fun and easy to work with. This is fun, not work.

2) We listen to music, but we read poetry (most times). When we are seeing words on a page, they look more intimidating. This is also one reason why we prefer to watch movies than to read books.

3) We don’t typically analyse music formally or academically. We do this with poetry. Therefore, when we think of poetry, we think of schoolwork. Now let’s get into these reasons and see how we can circumvent them to make poetry easier for us. Whether you are an educator or student, these ideas might be useful to you.

Poetry on the written page (even when prettied up, as in this illustration from Book Riot) can be quite daunting for any teenager. And yet, it should be as free flowing as a beautiful image, or a passage of music. I was lucky; my very best teacher of poetry was an Australian woman, who loved to read aloud to the class with such energy that the words sprang to life in our hearts.

Poetry = Music

While teaching CSEC English, I decided to take a less direct approach when I got around to poetry. For the first three or so classes, we did music instead. I got some speakers (audio, not motivational) and a projector and I let the students watch some familiar (and some not so familiar) music videos. Of course, this was very entertaining—especially compared to sifting through the wonderful and exciting world of their English textbooks.

After each music video, I would play the same song again, except this time it would be a lyric video. We would have a very free-flowing discussion about each song afterwards, and they would talk about what they thought about the songs. No rules, not parameters, no scores, no wrong answers. After the light discussion, I would ask increasingly heavier questions about the songs, now focusing on individual lines and even words. They were now unwittingly digging into theme, tone, mood and diction. Before they knew it, lyric sheets snuck onto their desks, replacing the projected screen. Now, they were able to make a few jottings about the songs. They were so amazed to see how much depth they had been missing in songs they had known for years. They didn’t even recognize the shift between watching music videos and doing deep critical analysis.

Surely enough, the song lyrics were soon replaced by actual CSEC poems. Now, having seen the real connection between songs and poems, delving into the CSCEC poems and answering the tough questions was much easier for them. Their mindset was completely turned on its head. For fun, I would sometimes challenge them with some of the most impervious poems I remembered from my studies at the University of the West Indies (UWI), and they would not be daunted by even those. Frost and Wordsworth, even the dreaded Shakespeare had become nothing tougher than nursery rhymes. Speaking of nursery rhymes, we analysed those as well, and found them to be unassumingly profound and riddled with lurking darkness.

The most brilliant rap artists and deejays blur the lines between music and words. What are you listening to – the rhythm or the lyrics?

We have basically covered all three reasons in one sprint just now. However, if we want to go even further into making students realize that poems are no different from songs, we can have students not only treat songs as poems, but also transform the poems they are studying into songs, and of course, set music to them. This is not just about passing CSEC exams. Eventually, these students will begin to think more critically about the songs they listen to. They might also even shift toward (or away from) particular types of music in a search for greater depth. Isn’t this an amazing possibility?

Thank you for sharing, Adam! 

P.S. from me: Some of my favorite singer/songwriters are also poets. Just a couple that spring to mind are that quintessential New Yorker, Paul Simon (his song/poem Spirit Voices is a gem, and there are many other lovely examples.

One of Paul Simon’s early songs.

Another singer/songwriter Bob Dylan is also a poet, as well as creator of many classic songs. Controversially to some, he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016; the Nobel Prize Committee said he had “created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” Precisely. Many of his songs are poetry, and many are also stories. He is a troubadour, who named himself Dylan after the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. It’s hard for me to pick out a favorite.

Some of Bob Dylan’s scribbles.

One more highly prolific creative, who bridged the gap between poetry and music, was the late Leonard Cohen, whose song Hallelujah became a huge hit late in his career (in 1984). But he had always written and performed his poetry – which were called songs.

Words put to music…A few lines of Leonard Cohen.

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