In psychology there’s the concept of learned helplessness. When a dog has tried and failed enough times to avoid an electric shock, it will just give up and sit whimpering on an electrified mat. Something similar (if not as graphic) happens whenever I introduce poetry into the classroom. A lot of students will say, “I can’t understand poetry. It never makes sense to me.” They won’t even try. This happens in my Humanities course with classical music too (and increasingly it happens with fiction). Curiously, though, I never get this reaction when I’m teaching a unit on architecture or cinema.

I suspect it’s because students have never before thought about buildings as aesthetic objects or expressions of ideas and values. Even so, they have experienced a lot of buildings and aren't intimidated about offering opinions on them. The same is true for film. They’ve seen hundreds of movies, although most have not spent much time thinking about editing, cinematography, soundtracks, etc. So I’ll break the class into teams with members who watch a film for camera movement, shot length, pacing, the use of music, etc. After showing a scene, I'll have them produce a group analysis of how the film used these devices to tell the story. It works for architecture as well. A team can analyze the use of line, form, rhythm, texture, color. Sometimes I’ll even get the best compliment a professor can receive. After a few weeks a student will say, “You know, I just don’t look at houses or buildings the same way,” or “I watch films a lot differently now.”

Yet turn them loose on a poem after explaining meter, metaphor and metonymy and you get the equivalent of learned helplessness: “I just don't get it. I'm not good at this.” With film or architecture they have the joy of seeing a familiar thing in a new way, but poetry is strange to them even though they use language far more than they watch movies. The problem is that they have become accustomed to thinking of language as solely a medium for conveying information. Only rarely have they thought about the sound sense or emotional associations they have with words (the exception is naming a child).

I have one exercise that really helps to show students another side of language. It's not original, but I've forgotten where I picked it up. Anyway, I draw two shapes on the board. One is full of acute angles and sharp points; the other is an amorphous, curvy blob. Then I write the made-up words ooblew and slankritz on the board and ask which shape is the ooblew and which the slankritz. The students laugh, but almost to a person they know the blob-like shape has to be the ooblew. Ask them why and they insist it's obvious. "It's just more, well, ooblew-ish.

Then we go back through the poem assigning shapes, colors, flavors, or smells to words. Colors work really well. I've even had them use colored pencils to shade the poem for its color sound. Then we discuss why they choose warm colors or cool colors, dark ones, light ones, etc. It's now just a short step toward a discussion of why the poet chose the word “forlorn” instead of “sad” or “depressed.” Sometimes I prime the pump by passing out Louis MacNiece's poem "Words," which includes the lines
When we were children words were coloured
(harlot and murder were dark purple)
The important thing in this exercise is to steer students away from trying to “get it” and steer them toward trying to experience the poem. Only afterwards can I start to ask questions about meaning: Why do you think MacNiece made words associated with sexuality and violence the same color? I want students to see a poem as a series of deliberate choices about sound that creatively reinforce or even purposefully stand athwart the poem's meaning, but I have to lead them there gently.

The ooblew exercise is fun and it usually works (though I doubt it's won many converts to poetry). It allows students to get a bit deeper into a poem through, so to speak, a back door. I wish I could come up with something like this for a poem's grammar and syntax. If I ask students why Whitman chose to use a reflexive pronoun in his title instead of calling his poem “My Song” or “A Song About Me,” I see a lot of nervous faces in the room that seem to be saying, “Reflexive pronoun? Oh, please, please, please don’t call on me.”


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