Poetry can be used in the basic writing composition classroom as a supplement to other prose genres of writing, and also as a stylistic model students might imitate in their own essays (Allen). Reading, discussing, and writing poetry offers students experience in critical and metacognitive thinking, genre recognition, and creative writing and thinking (see Koch, Martinez and Agee). Poetry has the advantage of being in “concise” form, can be read in a short amount of time, yet still be used like any other longer text (Martinez, Cruz and Burks). In addition, reading and writing poetry has been shown to help EFL students gain more confidence in their language skills (Preston).
One poem I’ve had success with in all my composition classes is Allen Ginsberg’s “First Party at Ken Kesey’s with Hell’s Angels”:
Cool black night thru the redwoods
Since most people’s exposure to poetry in the K-12 level still seems to be Edgar Allen Poe, many of my students are pleasantly surprised at the supposedly ‘adult’ themes in the poems, such as drinking, loud music, gangs and the police. Stylistically, the poem is a great example of ‘show don’t tell’, and using details. Through discussing style and form, they also gain experience with genre recognition, which helps them with analyzing other genres of writing in other disciplines, and in the workplace.
As part of developing strategies for critical thinking and analysis, I have my students read along as I recite the poem out loud, usually twice. I have them have pens in hand, and tell them to underline, circle or otherwise mark words, images, or lines that they either like, don’t understand, or just seem interesting or relevant. After reading the poem, I’ll then have them do free-writing, just responding in any way they want to the poem. At the end of the free-write, I’ll have them come up with three ‘why’ questions about the poem. During class discussion I’ll then ask individual students what they marked, or what some of their questions are, and see what the rest of the class has to stay. My role is just a facilitator, they hopefully generate the conversation, rather than me imposing meanings, or even questions, on them.
As an exercise in descriptive language, after discussing the poem in groups and/or as a class, I have them write their own poems about a party they’ve been to. I’ll collect them and make comments, but I also ask for volunteers to read them out loud. They could also read them to each other in groups. In either case, sharing their own poetry, and their own experiences, helps build class community. Writing in a different genre like poetry also helps students ‘exercise their writing muscles’, and their writing in general.
Agee, Jane. “Making Connections with Poetry: Multicultural Voices in Process.” ??? March 1993, pp. 2–15. JSTOR Eastern Michigan University Halle Library <www.jstor.org>.
Allen, Paul. “’Something Beyond Meaning’: The Poet’s Problem in Freshman Composition.” Writing On The Edge.
Cruz, MaryCarmen and Ogle Burks Duff. “Teaching Poetry: Dehydrated Food for the Soul.” The English Journal. December 1996, pp. 72–76. JSTOR Eastern Michigan University Halle Library <www.jstor.org>.
Koch, Kenneth. I Never Told Anybody: Teaching Poetry in the Nursing Home. Random House, New York: 1977
Koch, Kenneth. Rose, Where Did You Get That Red? Vintage, New York: 1990
Martinez, Valerie. “Missing Link: Metacognition and the Necessity of Poetry in the Composition Classroom.” Writing on the Edge.
Padak, Nancy. “Poetry in the Adult Literacy Classroom.” Teacher to Teacher. September 2001, pp. 3–5. JSTOR. Eastern Michigan University Halle Library <www.jstor.org>.
Preston, William. “Poetry Ideas in Teaching Literature and Writing to Foreign Students.” TESOL Quarterly, Dec. 1982, pp. 489–502. JSTOR Eastern Michigan University Halle Library <www.jstor.org>.