FAQ 4: How do you read a poem, teach someone to read a poem, especially in Ethnic Studies Department courses?

So this is a continuation of yesterday’s blog post on teaching poetry — are these blog posts considered “essays,” or “serial essays,” I wonder….

I referenced Los Angeles Poet Laureate Luis J. Rodriguez’s definition of poetry as a special, intense, and sacred use of language. This is something I believe more and more, what makes poetry so socially difficult but (and) sought after, prized, and coveted; what makes poetry so contentious. Why do people think it’s both so cool, and so pretentious to be a poet. Why do people find themselves arriving at poetry during rites of passage and during the most trying, difficult times in our lives. And during historic times; why do we have inaugural poets. And why do we gravitate towards the works of wartime poets. And why do we have poet laureates. And then, conversely, why do people deride poetry as “precious,” socially irrelevant, lacking basis in the real world. These binaries — what they tell me is that poetry is an intense battleground, that people really feel quite strongly about poetry, that people have an emotional stake in poetry.

Surely, this is intimidating for someone just entering into the field. Perhaps the aspiring poet suspects that poetry fuels our revolutionary fervor, or provides emotional release or support, and that is why they want a piece of it. Unexposed to the ugliness of MFA workshop and the publishing industry, to them, poetry is a kind of magic. Once you teach them the anatomy of a poem, that magic fades.


I prefer to think of it this way. I remember when I was learning how to play the piano, which is something I abandoned when I was around 11 or 12 years old, because my heart wasn’t into it. I would look at sheet music like it was some kind of secret code which teachers did indeed try their best to teach me to read. I would bang on the piano keys in vain, and some butchery of Mozart, Chopin, Rachmaninoff would happen. It was an atrocity and an injustice. And then my mother would sit at the piano on Saturday mornings; I would wake up to her just running her fingers over those same keys, and something beautiful, something I could not explain, would happen. Just the most beautiful music filling all of the air in our house. She had (and still has) a relationship with those pieces of sheet music, where she can just eyeball it and understand. She had cracked what I thought of as secret code; it was now inside of her.

Sometimes I think poetry is something like that. There are cues, clues, symbols all over the sheet music, that if you know how to read them, then in your head, you know. That does not take away from the magic of attending a symphony, where an orchestra can take what’s on that paper, and punch it to the heart of you so that you are in your seat weeping. When the mainstream appropriates that music, you may lament that your favorite classical piece is now being used to sell some lame product in some unnecessarily overwrought TV commercial (Orff’s “Carmina Burana” selling Domino’s Pizza, for example). But the work is the work; it will always be the work, with both “high” and “low” cultural resonances.

OK, so what does this have to do with teaching undergrads how to read a poem.

I like to ask them what their experiences are with poetry. What poems have they read, that have stayed with them, and why? Sometimes they can recite entire lines, and sometimes it’s just a phrase or two they remember, or a symbol or metaphor. Sometimes it will be something they read and memorized in grammar school — Edward Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussycat,” Lewis Carroll’s “How Doth the Little Crocodile,” Tupac Shakur’s “The Rose That Grew From Concrete,” Nikki Giovanni’s “Ego Trippin.”

So there’s something about poetry that insists on sticking to our memories. Why? How? Now you can discuss mnemonic devices in poetry. Rhyme, meter, repetitions (alliteration, et al). You can introduce them to terminology, to poetic forms.

Now you can discuss symbolism and other figurative language in poetry. Now you can talk about whether roses literally grow from concrete. And if they do, then what are those conditions? How does it not wither and die, from all the pollution, car exhaust, garbage, and neglect, from all the violence and ruckus that could just crush it. What does it take for this rose to grow, and bloom, and open? OK, are we still talking about the literal rose? Are we sure?

In Filipino American Literature class, I try to bring in poems by Al Robles’s Rappin’ With Ten Thousand Carabaos in the Dark. And so we have the I-Hotel on Kearny and Jackson Streets, San Francisco. Are there really carabao there? What is a carabao, what does it do, what do humans use the carabao for. Where are the carabao on Kearny Street. Why?

This all feels very elementary, but you would be surprised (or maybe you’re not) how many college students feel they have not been properly taught or exposed to literary and poetic device, and to poetic forms, such that they actually understand what they are and why they’re used.

When I was in high school, and then early on as an undergrad, (1) I was taught the sonnet like it was The Word of God. That if I did not know the form immediately upon sight — and then, specifically, which sonnet form — then I was culturally deficient. (2) No one ever taught me why the form was utilized, what the form is good for communicating, whether to look at what comes before and after the volta, or to look for the building argument that culminates in the rhyming end couplet.

If I had been taught the latter instead of the former, then perhaps my journey into poetry wouldn’t have been so vexed and combative. (Then again, I can say in hindsight as an old person, that all the fight, and the stress, have made me into the author I am today.)

Still, as a teacher, my point is that focusing on the “why” of poetic form and poetic technique will likely yield better results, rather than a gloss over the “what.” This goes also, for teaching poetic forms other than western forms — the whats, hows, and whys of the haiku and tanka, of the ghazal, of the tanaga, ambahan, and balagtasan, of the pantun and pantoum, to begin with. This goes also for all of the western appropriation of non-western traditions. No Walt Whitman without Indian philosophy. No Modernism without classical Chinese poetry. No pantoum without the pantun. And perhaps even no sonnet without Arabic poetry and song.

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