Curriculum Connections

Rebel Poets

Oddly, and for reasons forever being examined by sociologists and psychologists, there is an innate human drive to BREAK THE RULES. When teaching poetry, you have an excellent opportunity to tap into this drive within your students and channel it into a constructive and creative educational activity. Furthermore, if you are sneaky enough, you can even get your students to understand the purposes behind rules and, thus, make them better writers - and maybe even better citizens!

Try this: Write a short paragraph on the board (or put it on paper and make copies), but do not capitalize or punctuate the sentences. Write some of the words upside down and some of the lines diagonally or vertically. Badly misspell some of the words or spell them backwards, and put some word combinations in an illogical order. Tell your students you would like them to read and summarize the paragraph. Allow them a few minutes to try to figure it out, then take responses, allowing them to discuss and debate the content for a minute or two. They might be able to report the general idea of the paragraph and some of the details (depending on how mixed up you made it) but it will take them a lot longer than normal to glean the meaning and the overall picture will be a muddled one at best.

Ask your students what you could do to make the meaning of the paragraph crystal clear and immediately understandable. Taking one part of the paragraph at a time and guiding them to the correct conclusions by playing devil's advocate ('Oh, you can understand what I mean when I write happy as 'yppah,' can't you?' 'I don't need to make a pause after this word, do I?'), use their suggestions to straighten out the paragraph, fix the spelling errors, insert the proper punctuation, etc. Then, ask your students to create a set of rules that would help a writer to avoid writing such a garbled mess of words and letters. Again, guide them to the rules you would like to emphasize ('What rule could we make the writer follow so the reader will always know when one sentence ends and the next one begins?' etc.) Ideally, your students will tell you the rules of writing - instead of you telling them - and they'll understand why those rules exist in the first place and possibly be more inclined to use them.

Tip: You could do this activity on several different occasions, emphasizing particular rules each time by fashioning your paragraph to highlight them.

Still, your students will have that normal human drive to BREAK THE RULES. So, let them write poetry! Before you actually begin the writing, though, tell your students, 'In poetry, you may break any writing rule you choose as long as your breaking of that rule ENHANCES your poem.' This is the golden rule of poetic rule-breaking: only purposeful rebelliousness allowed. To reinforce this concept, examine the following poems for rule-breaking:

Nyani opens with a paradox - a situation that appears to 'break the rules' (bald snout, hairy cheeks, bare bottom). The poem also contains a word that does not appear in the dictionary. Can your students tell which one? (It's frictious, altered to play with the word vicious in the previous line.) In Duma II (see Bonus Poems), the stretched out word, 'speed,' creates a visual reference to the poem's action, eliciting the desired imagery (the blur of a  speeding cheetah) in the reader's imagination. How would the imagery be enhanced if this poem were written with the circular parts of the letters (d's, p's, o's, g's, etc.) filled in.? (Cross Reference: See Formulaic Poem Writing Activities, Connecting Your Safari to the Curriculum: Science and Connecting Your Safari to the Curriculum: Music.)

The poem Mbu stretches out the title word (and thereby badly misspells it) in the first and last lines. What is the effect here? What about the use of additional s'es in Chatu? Muhanga features sound effects and invented words that cannot be found in the dictionary. See if your students can identify the 'new' words.

Of course, all of the concrete poems also break the regular rules of writing since the words are placed on the page in irregular ways. Use the Index of Concrete Poems to locate and examine these poems for rule breaking.

Also, punctuation use in most of the poems does not always follow conventional rules. Have students identify when it does and when it doesn't in particular poems and posit theories for why the deviations from the norm are OK. (Ask them, for example: If a line doesn't end in a period, what tells the reader when the line ends and the next one begins? What can a poet do to introduce a pause without using a comma? etc.)

For each poem you examine, have your students pinpoint incidences of rule-breaking that would not be appropriate in an essay, say, or a report; and, for each example, challenge them to explain how the rule-breaking enhances the poem.

When it's time to do their own poetry writing, your students will enjoy the opportunity to break the rules in their poems - and thus produce more creative and interesting poetry. But the golden rule behind their freedom will encourage them to write with purpose and consider the need of the reader to quickly and clearly comprehend - and to enjoy the written words.

Tip: Another way to teach the concept of purposeful breaking of the rules in poetry, especially with younger students, is to encourage them to 'play with the words:'



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