Poetry was meant to be read using the body as an instrument. For centuries, even before written language, this is how people were taught poetry. This essential pleasure of poetry is also a skill which aids all kinds of learning objectives, including the ability to speak in front of others, a growth in the appreciation of language, and a lack of self-consciousness surrounding expressive reading. I recommend having students read poems aloud at the start of each day.
Our relationship to language changes when we commit words, phrases and sentences to memory. We suddenly become aware of how the words in a sentence fit together or why a line break was chosen at a certain place or how the images relate to each other. We also feel the language and rhythms differently in our mouths when we aren’t working to read them. It requires many readings and real understanding to memorize a poem, and the poems students memorize will become dear to them simply for having memorized them. Start by having a class memorize a poem together then branch out to individual memoriza- tion and recitation. Take it a step further and have a recitation contest with judges and prizes.
Integrate Poetry with Other Subjects
Acquire a collection of good poetry texts for your library or classroom and lend them out to students. Start reading them yourself and excit- edly share a recent find with your students. Use the poems to clarify or reference a particular truth, idea or emotion that crops up in the course of your study of Scripture or history. Don’t simply choose poems for their ideas or treat them as a means to an end, however. Read them for beauty’s sake and for pure pleasure. Choose all kinds of poems— high serious poems (Keats, Milton, Homer) and less important, funny poems (Ogden Nash, for instance). Include the Psalms and discuss the biblical poetic tradition. Read poems from all time periods, giving students a taste of different eras, including our own.
Discuss Form and Meaning
Students see things that you can’t see, and the meaning of poems emerges in conversation. Reading a poem aloud and discussing it for a few minutes is a valuable exercise, even if there is more to learn from a poem. Identify formal aspects you can find (rhythm, rhyme, sound devices, structure, stanzas, line breaks, inherited forms), discuss what the meaning might be, and look for the inter-relatedness of form and meaning. Show how metaphor is central to poetry as it is to all human thought. In science, for instance, metaphor has guided our understanding of many concepts which we cannot understand without analogy— the atom, for example. In our understanding of God we use the analogies of the creeds—God as Father, Maker, King—to give us some sense of who I AM is.