Learning by doing

A review of 'Spellbound: The Art of Teaching Poetry'

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Spellbound: The Art of Teaching Poetry

Spellbound: The Art of Teaching Poetry

ed. Matthew Burgess

T&W Books 2018, 256 pages, $19.95 ISBN 978-0915924837

I collect poetry handbooks — as if by simply possessing them I could conquer my teaching anxieties. I’ll also admit that I have rarely, if ever, used the exercises and prompts in these how-to’s — neither the ones in Robin Behn and Chase Twichell’s The Practice of Poetry or in Kenneth Koch’s classic Rose, Where Did You Get That Red?, nor in any of the others. Pleasure lies in reading these books the way armchair cooks read recipes: intellectually savoring subtle combinations of flavors and forms while never tasting them in the kitchen.

My reluctance to use poetry “recipes” in the classroom derives less from doubts about their effectiveness and more from my own teaching style. Many poetry handbooks offer key-ready assignments rather than the scaffolded teaching scripts I prefer. I like to begin my class with the close reading of a poem and a series of linked low-risk freewrites. I build from these simple, hopefully fun activities to more intricate assignments. My goal is to point students toward revisions of their thinking as much as toward finished poems. My questions are open-ended, and they attempt to foster the students’ creativity and critical analysis. By asking young writers to slow down, read aloud, and work together to understand a poem’s connotations, I am inviting them to do more than go through the motions of completing a task. I am asking them to take responsibility as readers and as writers.

While many poetry manuals zoom in on poetic technique — five types of sonnets, three kinds of villanelles — or offer general prompts — “write a poem in the form of a shopping list” — Spellbound: The Art of Teaching Poetry, the new Teachers and Writers Collaborative handbook, opts “for a narrative approach instead of a more structured list format.” As editor Matthew Burgess explains in the introduction, “Since making a lesson fly requires more than moving step by step through a sequence, we have invited contributors to reflect on their choices and to include the discoveries they’ve made in the process.”[1] In other words, this handbook seeks to engage, challenge, and — hopefully — inspire teachers by adding the kind of metacommentary of a master class:

Our motivation for creating this book emerged from a desire to discover, gather, and share some of the newer strategies and approaches that writer-teachers have been developing in recent years. We want to add to the ideas already in circulation, contributing innovative poetry lessons and prompts, especially those that involve contemporary and diverse mentor texts. (xv)

Here’s how this plays out: Spellbound is a teacher’s guide in the Teachers and Writers tradition; it includes humor, observation, confession, and ambivalence. The T&W mission, evidenced in their eighty writing and teaching guides, their magazine, and their vaunted poets-in-the-schools program, which has introduced New York children to poetry since 1967, “involves a balance between intention and improvisation. We plan, but we also remain attuned to what emerges in the moment” (xv). Teaching scripts are arranged by target age, running from elementary school to college. Many, as Burgess notes, are adaptable “up or down” so as to appeal to older or younger constituencies.

Spellbound acknowledges the panic of standing in front of multiple pairs of eyes, realizing that your lesson plan won’t work and that you must create a new one on the fly. Each lesson plan offers helpful explanations for the literary and collaborative goals for the day — even what to say to a reluctant or resistant class to get them on board. The “scripts” present series of open-ended questions that emphasize a kind of slant-wise approach — to cite Emily Dickinson’s directive “tell all the truth / but tell it slant” — providing diverse sequences of informal or “low-risk” writing that can encourage student writers to practice habits of communal exploration. In fostering a community of attention, students hone their curiosity, their listening skills, and their flexibility as thinkers.

This approach can be efficacious with students of various ages. Like Kenneth Koch’s excellent handbooks, which outline approaches for younger writers — famously, he assigned comparison (imaginative simile) poems, while introducing students to the work of Blake and Rimbaud — this guide assumes that young children can enjoy complexity and variety. And why not? The lives of children are often as difficult as the lives of teenagers. When Sheila Maldonado, in “Blues Poems: Borrowing from Songs to Write About What’s Wrong,” asks her students to consider the structure of a blues poem (“the shape of the container”) and the kinds of sadness that can be poured into that container, she is working with middle schoolers as often as high school and college kids: “I use different examples for the levels, but the shape of the lesson is generally the same” (106). With younger writers, she’ll use poems by Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Fenton Johnson; with high school and college age students: Etheridge Knight and Jayne Cortez. She describes a typical scene: “I usually find the atmosphere of a classroom so rigid, the fluorescent lights and stuck windows, often overly lit, airless places.” She lowers the lights, plays some blues tunes, and invites the students to “get to a place of intimacy from which they can write” (106). Middle school students may laugh when they hear a scratchy recording of Leadbelly’s “Good Morning Blues,” but the kids respond eloquently when she asks, what makes you sad? Maldonado includes some of their answers: the president, the police, poverty, racism, school. “The air is wrong, the morning is wrong, the world is wrong …” (209).

As we see here, conspicuous throughout Spellbound is an insistence on complexity, diversity, and lived experience. Scripts are built around poems by writers as diverse as Harryette Mullen, Danez Smith, Philip Larkin, Bhanu Kapil, and Marianne Moore, among others. In modeling the manifold possibilities of poetic inspiration, Erika Luckert, in “What is a Poem: Writing Towards a Wilder Definition of Poetry,” describes how she begins a class by handing out slips of paper upon which are written brief definitions of what is poetry by Paul Celan, Elizabeth Alexander, Ezra Pound, James Tate, and Horace (25). Many lesson plans have been created by such contemporary poets as Jennifer Firestone, Jason Koo, Tina Cane, Bianca Stone, Tiphanie Yanique, and Joanna Fuhrman — testifying to the collection’s interest in stylistic diversity. Some poetic examples deconstruct meaning by summoning a variety of disembodied voices or play with spatial architecture and the aural connections of implicit rhymes; others create visual texts to accompany written ones. Student poems are included as exemplars of the exercises in action, and users of the guide are encouraged to create their own archive of student work: “Asking students for permission to share their work with a future class is a great way to validate them as writers while offering a glimpse of their work moving through the world in a larger way” (xvi).

The generosity and thoroughness of these approaches is striking. As Brian Blanchfield puts it in his ekphrastic sequence, “Beyond Imitation: Reverse Engineering the Lyric Poem”:

These … exercises are, I suppose, part of a greater pedagogical project: to thaw the inhibiting and self-defeating expectation that there is a one-to-one transfer of thought to expression; that first you decide on an idea for a poem, and then you execute the poem that delivers the idea. A good prompt or procedural sets up the propitious conditions for discovery to take place, and it is the sense of a writer discovering within a developing piece that makes the work obliging and revelatory to the reader. It is something I myself have to learn again and again as a writer, and it can only be learned by doing. (204; italics in original)

Learning by doing. Spellbound’s process-oriented approach is worlds away from the “fill in the blank” poems my children “wrote” in their public schools. (I love to see_____. I play ______., etc.).

I recently adapted Stefania Heim’s “The Imaginary Gallery” for a class of international high school students at Bard College Berlin. I began by engaging these students, for whom English was a third or fourth language, with a series of short quick questions — loop-writes in the vocabulary of composition theorist Peter Elbow — and a sequence of timed discussion questions. 

Here’s what we did: first, we visited a nearby museum of contemporary art where I asked students to take phone-photos of any artworks that appealed to them. When we were back in the classroom, the class reviewed their photos and chose one artwork that was their favorite; this they described in a sequence of questions. They were essentially practicing “slow looking” — as Shari Tishman calls it in her new book, Slow Looking: The Art and Practice of Learning Through Observation — that is, a step-by-step process of slowing down and close reading. These timed observations ended with an exploration of their attraction to their chosen artwork, relaying memories, associations and desires in writing.

Pairing up, each student then read their description to a partner without showing their partner the image. The other student listened, took notes, and then attempted to reproduce the artwork in words as a poem. As Heim directs: “You may use everything on your page, including direct quotations. Try to capture something of your partner’s emotion in the encounter, something of their cadence in talking. What excited them, looking? What excited you, listening?” (194). 

This unusual and most assuredly “slant-wise” approach to writing from visual art proved a curiously moving exercise. Students reached new heights of written and spoken fluency as they described their partner’s painting or sculpture, and, more importantly, their “remembering, noticing, listening and imagining” (195). The poems, shared aloud, were a tactile mix of colors, textures, and imagined narratives. During the course of an hour, we moved beyond grammatical fluency to a fluent exchange of ideas.

A few quibbles: the title of Spellbound: The Art of Teaching Poetry was inspired by a seventh-grader’s poem, but, in my opinion, should have included more of the young woman’s line:

Poetry is the simple spellbound
for those too meager, and insignificant to speak

Poetry, the Simple Spellbound might have attracted my curiosity to the book far more readily than the current title, which, sitting on a bookstore shelf, might signal a mystery or fantasy novel. It shares a title with the Hitchcock movie starring Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck and a 2002 documentary about the National Spelling Bee. Similarly, the cover painting — two anonymous figures contemplating the Northern Lights — might grace an X-Files fan fiction or a collection of Barry Lopez essays. The book’s design is conventional in a way that its content never is. Similarly, unjustified margins and assorted typefaces makes for a visually unappealing layout. This is in no way, however, a caveat emptor for what may be the most useful poetry handbook you’ll ever own. Like my copy of the Teachers & Writers Handbook of Poetic Forms, circa 1987, edited by Ron Padgett, which curves from hard use like the shell of a snapping turtle, Spellbound should be bought, shared, and vigorously used. 

1. Matthew Burgess, ed., Spellbound: The Art of Teaching Poetry (T&W Books, 2018), xvii.