Sounding Out Poetry
Emily K. Michael | January 2017
As a blind woman, I do not court silence. The absence of sound in the presence of other people often makes me apprehensive. With no audible messages, I’m left to wonder what others are thinking and doing. This anxiety intensifies when I stand before my freshman writing students. Are my students texting? passing notes? sleeping? While they produce no sound, I cannot judge their mood or level of attention to my class—a required first-year composition course.
But as a blind teacher, I must set aside my discomfort and learn to trust in silence, in its power to help students access their own thoughts and voices. When I pose a question, I force myself to wait, to endure the swell of soundlessness that fills the room. I must exchange one kind of knowledge—the audible signals of my students’ activities—for the quiet in which ideas percolate. If I wait long enough, a student will speak.
Today’s lesson will put my resolutions to the test. My students are exploring the concept of metaphor through poetry, the genre that renders them mute and uncomfortable. I have given them a packet of eight poems:
- “You Fit Into Me” by Margaret Atwood
- “Metaphors” by Sylvia Plath
- “Because You Asked about the Line between Prose and Poetry” by Howard Nemerov
- “Ars Poetica” by Archibald MacLeish
- “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas
- “Song” by Seamus Heaney
- “A Drink of Water” by Seamus Heaney
- “The Well Rising” by William B. Stafford
My students rarely react positively to poetry. Intimidated, irritated, or apathetic, they resist all kinds of poems—from William Carlos Williams’s “Red Wheelbarrow” to Adrienne Rich’s “What Kind of Times Are These.” So I expect silence today. I pass out the poems, knowing that I’ll hear more groans than anything else.
Despite their resistance, I insist on teaching poetry because poetry uses language beautifully on a budget. The poems I choose are brief, employing metaphors in memorable ways. The nine lines of Plath’s poem each contain at least one metaphor, and Heaney’s “A Drink of Water” weaves metaphorical and narrative language so closely that students have difficulty pulling the strands apart.
In my morning class, I ask for student volunteers to read the poems aloud. We begin with Atwood’s four-line poem, in which she uses each new line to subvert the meaning of the previous one. After a student reads the work aloud, I ask, “So what is this poem about?” The predicted silence occurs, throwing the pen-clicking and paper-shuffling into high relief. I wait. I let the silence grow. I imagine that it fills every corner of the room, snaking around the desks and climbing up the walls. Eventually, a student responds—and the attitude of her comment overshadows its content. She offers half-sentences, stumbles over her words, backs up.
As we move through the poems, I notice the same reticence in other student responses. When we read “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night,” a student says, “I guess it’s about a guy talking to his father…or something…because his father is dying?” The student is right—and it seems like an obvious interpretation to me—but he sounds unsure. Something about the text alienates him, and I suspect it’s because we call this text a poem.
When we label these texts as poems, students handle them with certain assumptions. Poems should be difficult. Poems should advance ambiguous meanings—meanings that directly oppose a student’s intuition. Convinced that some phantom authority knows “what the poem is really about,” students learn to distrust their gut reactions to poetry. And where there is no trust, there can be no love. Why should I be surprised that they don’t want to get to know these texts? They’ve been told that poetry stands aloof: she won’t give you her number, she won’t ask you to dance, you’ll always look foolish when you approach her.
Even if my students aren’t preoccupied with being wrong about the poems, I consider that they may be overwhelmed by the task of interpretation. So I change the plan of action for my afternoon class. I divide the project of engaging with the poem into four key tasks: 1) reading the poem aloud, 2) identifying the prominent metaphors, 3) identifying the genre conventions (what makes this poem a poem), and 4) explaining “what the poem is about.” A group of 4–7 students will handle each task, and students can place themselves in the group that best suits their skills. The first three groups fill quickly, but few students want to be in the fourth, where they are most likely to display their lack of interpretive skill.
We approach the poems in the same order, beginning with Atwood. After an eager volunteer from Group 1 reads the poem aloud, I notice an immediate upsurge in student conversation. Group members are conferring, reacting, forgetting to be self-conscious in the presence of an instructor and an unknowable genre. We discuss Atwood’s four lines in a disorderly fashion, students from each group chiming in before I can call on them. A voice from Group 2, who should be identifying metaphors, goes for the poem’s meaning: “So, this isn’t a love poem! It’s like a hate poem! She’s irritated with this other person, right?” Other voices sound their agreement without waiting for me to verify the student’s interpretation.
After the reading of Plath’s “Metaphors,” where the speaker describes herself as “a riddle in nine syllables…an elephant, a ponderous house,”1 the room falls silent. Plath’s layered metaphors can be overwhelming, cryptic. But it’s not long before a student from the read-aloud group bursts through the quiet: “She’s writing about being pregnant!” While her peers react with loud disbelief, I ask, “How do you know that?” and the student takes the class through every line of the poem, pointing to Plath’s fruit and body imagery, use of “nines” (it’s a nine-line poem, and each line has nine syllables), and creation metaphors.
Though the group exercise does not transform all quiet students into fearless interpreters, I feel that it changes the mood of the classroom. Students are eager to complete their group’s task, to do right by their group members, and this solidarity distracts them from the habitual intimidation that poetry inspires. I hear more excitement in their observations. They are proud of locating obscure metaphors, of understanding that poems use stanzas, repetition, and unconventional word order. They delight in fanciful interpretations, and I enjoy listening to them play with poetry.
Emily K. Michael is a blind poet, musician, and writing instructor from Jacksonville, Florida. Her poetry and essays have appeared in Wordgathering, The Hopper, Artemis Journal, The Deaf Poets Society, Nine Mile Magazine, The Fem, Rogue Agent, Disability Rhetoric, Breath & Shadow, Narrative Inquiry in Bioethics, BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog, and Mosaics (Vol. 2). Emily’s work centers on ecology, disability, feminism, and music. She develops grammar workshops for multilingual learners and participates in local writing festivals. Find her on Twitter (@ModwynEarendel) and at her blog On the Blink. Watch her TEDx Talk, “The Confluence of Disability and Imagination.”
- Sylvia Plath. The Collected Poems, ed. Ted Hughes (New York: HarperCollins, 2008), 116.