Examined poetry – the barbaric yawp

Jill Carter: teaching poetry in secondary schools

Jill Carter shares her tips and thoughts about how to energise poetry lessons. 

Ask students if they like poetry and often the answer is a resounding ‘no’. Boys can be especially clear about this. I hear comments such as “I just don’t get it” and “It’s so boring”. It can be viewed as the domain of irritating or peculiar people like Shakespeare – people they believe they will never understand and would never want to anyway. And some girls share this attitude too. From my experience, the result is they switch off.

Perhaps, we should ask ourselves:
  • How often do we model exploring a genuinely unseen poem with students, abandoning our powerpoints, forsaking our mice and simply tackling a poem we have never looked at ourselves with them? How often do we search for meaning and revelation with them?
  • Do we explore consider how far students can relate to a poem? Would you we have connected with ideas about the intricate pain of parenthood when you we were 15?
  • Do we consider that, for the average teenager, many poems (including contenders for the unseen slots) may appear to be nothing more than a bit of prose set out differently? A good example is a sample paper which asks students to explore Poem for My Sister. The key ideas here are very hard to articulate because they are very adult – it is difficult for a teenager to recognise that the wrong shoes can ruin our feet and are symbolic of the prison that is women’s fashion. It looks like prose randomly set out on a page and there are few obvious poetic techniques. How would your average GCSE student approach this?
So where to begin?

Discuss what poetry is – it is the undiluted orange squash of the language world, it is the moment you suck a piece of lemon, it is that essence, that zing. It is that moment in our favourite music track which strikes a chord somewhere in our very centre. Introduce students to the word ‘poignant’ which will probably more or less define poetry itself!

We could all start by watching/rewatching the ‘Rip It Out’ and the ‘Barbaric yawp’ scenes from Dead Poet’s Society to remind ourselves of the essence of poetry.

Next take a look – a proper look – at:

Form and structure

Yes, they know what a sonnet is (and a haiku and a limerick and…) but beyond this some are completely lost. Encourage students to start by simply looking at the page. Hold it at a distance – what shapes and patterns do they see?

  • How is the poem set out? Does it assume any recognisable form or is it free verse?
  • If it has a regularity (rhyme scheme, stanzas, line lengths), how might these structures be linked to the meaning?
  • If it has no regularity how might this be linked to the meaning?

Working with a student, I fired a series of themes at him – war, love, parenting, etc. – getting him to say for each how a tight structure might reflect the theme and how free verse might reflect the theme. He was astonished at how simple this idea was:

War – free verse – chaos, destruction, confusion etc.

War – regular rhyme / lines / stanzas – organisation, discipline, precision etc.

  • Are any lines particularly long or short? If a line ‘sticks out’ noticeably further than others or shrinks back, is a point being made?
  • Is there any noticeable punctuation – exclamations, question marks, series of commas? Could they suggest drama, doubt or the layering up of detail? How might these relate to the meaning of the poem?
  • Is there a noticeable absence of punctuation? Could this suggest breaking with convention or a relentlessness that relates to the meaning?
  • Is there any clear enjambment – does it make certain parts of the poem seem choppy, jarring or fragmented? Does this effect link to the meaning?

Zoom in on:


What does the title tell us?

What do the last words or lines (from the penultimate punctuation mark) tell us?

Which words or phrases dazzle, enchant, excite, fascinate, intrigue? Why?

Is any of the language particularly emotive? Why?

Are there images or details which might linger in the mind? Why?

What would they remember about this poem if they walked away now? Why?

What is the poet aching to communicate to us?

…and so on…

Above all, present poetry with passion – channel your inner  Mr Keating (Robin Williams, Dead Poets’ Society) instructing his students to tear the ‘explanatory’ introductions out of the poetry books. Encourage students to be DARING and EXPERIMENTAL with their interpretations – what is there to lose?