By AKEMECHA Joshua (presented at CAMELTA Bamboutos seminar on 09/05/2007
Experience has proven that many literature students consider poetry as the most difficult genre of literature. Some English language and literature teachers fail to make use of the poems they meet in the course-books either due to their own lack of mastery of this genre, or a kind of prejudice the students would not understand, or that the lesson would be boring, or even that the language skills to be learnt from a poem are not overt. This paper is tailored on the premise that any good poem, well-handled in a classroom situation can be of great value to both the language learner and the language teacher.
This write-up aims at enabling the reader have the basic knowledge to tackle a fresh poem. It also aims at helping teachers get the meaning of any poem they meet for the very first time with some degree of self-assurance or confidence; and finally it aims at helping teachers know how to use poetry as a springboard to language teaching.
WHAT IS POETRY?
To take you on a long and perilous journey of finding a universally accepted definition of poetry is not the objective of this paper, for, no such definition exists to my knowledge. Several poets and critics have defined poetry in various ways, yet none of these definitions seems complete and acceptable to all. Os cause, it is often easier to say what is not poetry, than to say what it is . It is for language teachers to understand that poetry is not esoteric, a western convention adopted in Africa to be studied by students in the classroom. It has existed in Africa since the cradle of mankind. It is by no means a recent import into Africa from Europe. Ogungbesan and Woolger write in Images and Impression that: ‘’it is a vital and meaningful form of expression by which the individual poet may convey his thoughts and feelings on experience’’ (P.7)
Poetry had existed as an important and living part of Africa culture through its oral traditions. Through dirges, birth songs, incantations and rituals; people gave utterance to their joys and sorrows appreciation to ancestors and gods, and requests for protection, good health and fertility. These oral forms often contain much poetry and even today many modern poets deliberately make use of them, for example, Kofi Awoonor’s ‘’song of war’’ (see appendix 1) it is a song expressing communal feeling, expressing the need for war. It is easy to see the influence of oral poetry in the form of the poem and in lines 13-15 and 16-18.
We may conclude here that a poet uses particular skills in language in order to bring out his feelings and to reflect the realities of the world in whish he lives.
GOLD IN THE ORE
Centuries ago men studied a subject called rhetorics which was the art of expressing oneself effectively and affectingly in speech or writing. It helps to make the speaker or writer achieve a particular effect on his audience. This effect is achieved largely through the use of figurative language. The word ‘figure’ means ‘a device’ hence we talk of figures of speech or speech devices. In poetry we may call them poetic devices. These are like ‘Ornaments’ which depart from the plain and ordinary way of expressing oneself. Its purpose is to make meaning more effective. Consider this:
The athlete ran fast and crossed the finish line.
The athlete crossed the distant tape like an arrow.
The athlete crossed the distant tape in a flash.
The crowd roared his name above all!
The second line is more effective than the first but while the smile in line two is very effective, the words ‘flash’ and ‘roared’ are even more suggestive. The simile is very direct while the metaphors are indirect comparisons.
In the word ‘flash’ the ‘athlete’s speed is compared to that of light while the noise made by the spectators is compared to roaring lions. There is gold in the ore and you have to dig the mine deep enough to find the precious minerals underneath.
Poets prefer using imagery to ordinary language because it is the best way to express deeply felt and complex experiences which cannot be conveyed adequately in simple language or ordinary prose. The poet’s language is sharper and more vivid because he wants his audience to relive his experience imaginatively.
IS THIS POETRY OR JUST VERSE?
Poetry may be written in verse but not all verse is poetry. The life-write of poetry is imagery and a good poem needs not necessarily be in verse. Verse is any singsong with rhythm and rhyme like the nursery rhymes. For example:
Thirty days hath September,
April June and November,
Jack and Jill/went up the hill…
The word verse refers only to the shape an expression takes, not to its content or quality. If verse has to be poetry, then it must add the qualities of imagination, emotion and, effective and affecting language. Consider this poem by J.P Clerk: (Index 2).
Running splash of rust
And gold-flung and scattered
Among seven hills like broken
China in the sun.
This is a perfect poem, yet it has little or nothing to do with versification. It is concentrated, economical and full of poetic expression. Much can be said in analyzing it. It gives us a picture of a city of inequalities, ill-planned with beautiful and ramshackle buildings littered ‘like’ broken china in the sun’. It is highly descriptive, yet no adjective is used. Spread among seven hills, Ibadan is bright like gold, yet dusty; it is beautiful, yet ugly with rusted roofs, it is full of the rich and the poor. The poet relies on setting or landscape to say all that can be seen in the city.
So without tying ourselves down to any western definition of poetry, we may say poetry is the expression of the self, the communication of feelings and experiences in exceptionally effective and affecting language. Language is effective if it produces the results that it was intended to; it is affecting when it stirs our hearts and moves our feelings.
ON SEEING A POEM FOR THE FIRST TIME
If we agree that poetry, unlike verse, is not arbitrary, ‘’that everything in a poem is an expression of what is natural’’; then we must admit that reading poetry is more demanding than reading prose. Each poem presents its own challenges and rewards, so we need to read a poem with an open and alert mind.
It would be unrealistic to expect to understand everything in a poem on first reading. The following approach may be used for a fresh poem:
- Read the poem through completely. This enables you to have a general idea about the poem. You may red it allowed to get the feel of its lyrics.
- Read it again several times thinking more carefully of the details. This means you will have to pause to ponder as you read, and to jot down motes. When the reader trains himself ‘’to write random notes around a poem, he trains himself to always have something useful and focused to say about a given poem. Such a practice of writing notes around the poem to generate infinite webs of meaning falls within the ambit of DECONSTRUCTIO’’ (Temeh Valentine: 2005). Find out the parts of the poem which you didn’t understand and pay more attention to them.
- Increase your grasp on the poem by doing some detailed study of the diction and phrases. Think carefully about the imagery in order to work out any implied meaning. Literature is not the matter (theme) but also the Manner (form and style). What poetic devices are used and how effectively have they been used? Examine the imagery in this (Index 3):
Time like an ever-rolling stream.
Bears all its sons away;
They fly forgotten as a dream
Dies at the opening day.
The poet sees the passage of time in the light of a flowing river in a fixed course. The critics James Reeves and Babette Deutch comment on the above verse as follows:
‘’Isaac watts, paraphrasing the psalmist, describes the fleeting nature of human life, as distinct from the eternity of God. He uses two similes, one to suggest the relentless passage of time, the other to suggest the impermanence of human life’’ (close reading: P.25)
While we accept that Isaac watt’s imagery is very effective. I would like us to look at this verse from H.W Longfellow’s ‘’A psalm of like’’ (Index 4).
Lives of great men all remind us
We may make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time.
Several poets, critics and orators often quote the last two lines above. They fail to see like Coombes that the metaphor is a bad one. H. Coombes writes, ‘’it is a very bad metaphor’’ because sands do not move forward and do not suggest time.
“Surely Longfellow has confusedly in mind, the sands of the hour-glass, which do really run, and he hazily and inappropriately introduces footprints. And in any case, he is intending to suggest leaving a lasting name behind, and what is more evanescent than footprints in sand’’ (close reading: P.31)
- Try to work out the rhythm of the poem: what words are emphasized and what pace it takes. Does the rhythm help to bring out the meaning of the poem? In examining rhythm it is not very important to go into prosody or try to scan the poem. A well read poem will suggest to us whether the rhythm is fast or slow, regular or irregular and jerky. Fast rhythms may suggest excitement and happiness while slow rhythms may suggest gloom, sorrow or grief.
- Read through the poem to get its meaning as a whole. Try to put the details together and see how they fit in with each other. Connect your random jottings and see if they cohere. You may also have to examine the title of the poem as well as the form and structure which may suggest the meaning in one way or the other.
- Finally put the poem aside for a period and return to it later. This will stimulate new ideas, confirm some old ones and reject others.
To conclude, there is no standardized approach to a fresh poem; and there is far more than any single paper can carry on this subject, yet we may take these points as a springboard for any fresh poem we meet.
USING A POEM IN A LANGUAGE LESSON
We meet poem very often in language textbooks but how often do we make use of these poems? Generally we skip over the page for one reason or the other as earlier mentioned in the introduction. However, both the learner and teacher can benefit from the study of a fresh poem. After working out the meaning of the poem, the teacher should end with some follow-up activities such as:
- After discussing the poem you may ask students to explain its meaning in about a hundred words depending on the poem’s nature.
- Which other words could have been used in place of the following: (select strategic words from the poem).
- Look at the structure of line x and y; write a line or verse of your own adopting the same structure.
- Pick out figures of speech and other poetic devices systematically and explain them to students, then ask students to look for more in the poem and identify them.
- Discussion: students may say whether they liked the poem or not, giving their reasons.
- Let students imagine parallel or similar or even contrasting themes and titles and try to write a stanza of poetry of their own.
For example, from ‘’Song of war’’ they may write on ‘’Song of peace’’; from ‘’Ibadan’’ they can write on ‘’Yaounde’’ etc.
Whatever the activity, you can’t teach a poem successfully when you yourself do not master it and, it is only after a poem has been successfully taught that learners can perform follow-up activities on it. Some poems may be difficult and demanding, but they shouldn’t scare a language teacher. He or she should see it as a challenge.
Whatever the case, be able to form your own judgment of the poems you read, develop your own critical thinking and above all, don’t be afraid of your own ideas.
Scott, A.f (1968).Close readings: A course in the critical
Appreciation of poetry. London: Heinemann.
Woolger, D and Ogungbesan, K. (1988). Images and
impressions: An Oxford Senior poetry course.
Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Nims, John Frederick (1983). Western Wind: An
Introduction to Poetry. USA/ L.C.C.P.D
Hunt, Douglas (1983). The Riverside Anthology of
Literature. Boston: HMC
VALENTINE? Temeh (2005). The literature Teacher’s
Handbook. T. junction Bamenda: Anoh’s
Levin, Gerald (1987). The Macmillan. College
Handbook. New York: Macmillan.
INDEX OF POEMS
- “Song of War” IBADAN
I shall sleep in white calico;
War has come upon the sons of men Ibadan,
And I shall sleep in calico running splash of rust
Let the boys go forward, and gold-flung and scattered
Kepli and his people should go forward; among seven hills like broken
Let the white man’s guns boom, china in the sun
We are marching forward; J.PClerk
We all shall sleep in white calico.
3.’Psalm XC’ (excerpt)
When we start, the ground shall shake; Time like an ever-rolling stream
The war is within our huts; Bears all its sons away
Cowards should fall back; they fly forgotten as a dream
And live at home with the women; Dies at the opening day.
They who go near our wives Isaac watts
While we are away in battle 4. ‘’Psalm XC’’ (Excerpt)
Shall lose their calabashes when we come lives of great men all remind us
We may make our lives sublime,
Where has it been heard before and, departing, leave behind us
That a snake has bitten a child Footprints on the sands of time.
In front of its own mother H.W Longfellow
The war is upon us…
We are fighting them to die. 5. The Mesh
We have come to the cross-roads
We shall die on the battlefield And I must either leave or come with you
We shall like death at no other place
Our guns shall die with us I lingered over the choice
And our sharp knives shall perish with us But in the darkness of my doubts
You lifted the lamp of love
We shall die on the battle field. And I saw in your face
The road that I should take
KOFI AWOONOR (Ghana) Kwesi Brew
Prepared and presented at CAMELTA
Bamboutos Seminar on 09/05/2007 at
College Aloys by AKEMECHA Joshua N. PLEG
HOD ENG. LIT. G.B.S. MBOUDA