Teaching Poetry for the First Time

  So, I have to be honest.  Teaching Shakespeare and teaching poetry are the main reasons putting me off teaching English for the past 10 years.  I love novels and I love reading, but poetry has always put me to sleep.  I respect it, but it really doesn't touch me as much as other art forms, so I've always had concerns about my ability to enthuse students to poetry.  However, I've learnt a few tips recently that have made the whole process seem a lot less daunting.

   First of all: a disclaimer.  I've totally stolen this idea from this book: 



 It's pretty expensive, but it's the best book on English teaching I have ever read.  Loads of practical tips.  Highly recommended.

  Anyway, the idea I saw in this book that I liked was a lesson plan for introducing poetry to students using a fantastic poem by Fanthorpe named Not My Best Side.   It's a biting, sarcastic poem that totally takes the piss out of a renowned artist named Paolo Uccello.  You start off the lesson by telling them that you are going to look at a poem and painting called Saint George and the Dragon, which shows three people: The Knight/Hero, the Maiden and the Dragon.  Elicit adjectives to describe each one.  Usually, the students will resort to stereotypes and will describe the knight as handsome, the maiden as beautiful, the dragon as terrifying, etc.  The students give themselves expectactations and should be a little surpised when they see the picture: :


File:Paolo Uccello 047.jpg

Ask students to compare their initial ideas with the painting in front of them.   I can imagine students having a bit of a laugh - the dragon isn't that ferocious, the maiden isn't a classical beauty and St George looks more like a snivelling nerd than a hero.

Now, you can give them the poem by Fanthorpe:

I

Not my best side, I'm afraid.
The artist didn't give me a chance to
Pose properly, and as you can see,
Poor chap, he had this obsession with
Triangles, so he left off two of my
Feet. I didn't comment at the time
(What, after all, are two feet
To a monster?) but afterwards
I was sorry for the bad publicity.
Why, I said to myself, should my conqueror
Be so ostentatiously beardless, and ride
A horse with a deformed neck and square hoofs?
Why should my victim be so
Unattractive as to be inedible,
And why should she have me literally
On a string? I don't mind dying
Ritually, since I always rise again,
But I should have liked a little more blood
To show they were taking me seriously.

II

It's hard for a girl to be sure if
She wants to be rescued. I mean, I quite
Took to the dragon. It's nice to be
Liked, if you know what I mean. He was
So nicely physical, with his claws
And lovely green skin, and that sexy tail,
And the way he looked at me,
He made me feel he was all ready to
Eat me. And any girl enjoys that.
So when this boy turned up, wearing machinery,
On a really dangerous horse, to be honest
I didn't much fancy him. I mean,
What was he like underneath the hardware?
He might have acne, blackheads or even
Bad breath for all I could tell, but the dragon--
Well, you could see all his equipment
At a glance. Still, what could I do?
The dragon got himself beaten by the boy,
And a girl's got to think of her future.

III

I have diplomas in Dragon
Management and Virgin Reclamation.
My horse is the latest model, with
Automatic transmission and built-in
Obsolescence. My spear is custom-built,
And my prototype armour
Still on the secret list. You can't
Do better than me at the moment.
I'm qualified and equipped to the
Eyebrow. So why be difficult?
Don't you want to be killed and/or rescued
In the most contemporary way? Don't
You want to carry out the roles
That sociology and myth have designed for you?
Don't you realize that, by being choosy,
You are endangering job prospects
In the spear- and horse-building industries?
What, in any case, does it matter what
You want? You're in my way.

   Fanthorpe's criticism of the painting is much harsher and more impertinent than anything the students have likely come up with, and this gives students more of an appreciation of what she has done.   As Trevor Wright says in the book:

"They have their own original thoughts about the story and it's archetypes to compare with Fanthorpe's 20th-Century stereotypes and they can appreciate the comedy and perceptiveness of that journey because in a sense they have just made it themselves".


Teachers can then go to analyse the poem in any way they see fit, but I thought this was a great way to introduce poetry.  I look forward to using this myself some day soon.  Let me know if you use this and if you had any luck with it! 

   Happy Teaching! 

      

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