Not everyone likes poetry. For me, someone who loves poetry deeply, this can be a hard reality to accept. In fact, rather than accept it, I have tried my best in my years of teaching to transform even my most reluctant students into individuals who can appreciate the genre, and maybe even like it.
I begin the semester with a poem that challenges students’ assumptions about poetry and sets us up for a semester of active analysis. That poem is Langston Hughes’ short 1925 poem “Johannesburg Mines”:
In the Johannesburg mines
There are 240,000
Native Africans working.
What kind of poem
Make out of that?
Working in the
On a practical level, the poem is short enough that I can provide hard copies for the students, which is an added perk at the start of the semester. Though it may be short, there is nothing simple about this poem. I introduce the poem by giving background information on Hughes and his role in the Harlem Renaissance, and the way in which his poetry works to advocate for the rights of African Americans. We also talk briefly about the history of mining in South Africa and apartheid.
I then ask the students to read the poem aloud, one line per student, a method I often use in order to emphasize line breaks and each line as a unit of meaning. From there, I ask for general responses. Some students will claim that the poem is “stupid” or “not a poem.” These kinds of comments are actually quite useful as they lead to a conversation about what poetry really is, which is directly linked to the question posed in the poem. It is the meta-poem at the heart of this poem that makes it so valuable as an introduction to poetry. I define “meta-poem” and “meta-text” and we talk in detail about what it means for the poet to have included this question in the middle of such a short poem. It’s at this point that the conversation gets good. I ask students to consider “what kind of poem” Hughes wrote and why. We talk about his use of inexact repetition. We talk about his stating a specific number of exploited natives. We talk about audience and why Hughes, who typically writes about African Americans, is writing about “Native Africans.” We wonder, who is the “you” addressed? Is it literal or rhetorical? We talk about the role of the poet. What does it mean for Hughes to reveal the inability of poetry to hold trauma, if the question is a mark of exasperation, or the ability of poetry to speak truth to power, if the question is answered by the very existence of the poem in which it is embedded? I read them William Carlos Williams’s words from his poem “Asphodel, that Greeny Flower”:
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there.
Typically, by now, even those students who met the poem with resistance, are intrigued. This nine-line poem generates a lot of questions and forces readers to think critically about the content and form of poetry.
The central question of the poem — What kind of poem / Would you / Make out of that? – guides the way we talk about poetry for the rest of the semester, and is the core of their first essay assignment. With this question in mind, we then read two poems about the 1955 murder of Emmett Till: “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile, A Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon” by Gwendolyn Brooks and a sonnet from Marilyn Nelson’s book A Wreath for Emmett Till. These poems are quite different from each other, and these differences are the focus of our class discussions that lead up the writing assignment. The Brooks poem requires a discussion of perspective and points of view, as it is written in the third person, but tracks the perspective of its main character, Carolyn Bryant, the wife of the man who murdered Till.
This is the first essay assignment:
In his poem “Johannesburg Mines,” after stating the shocking number of native Africans working in the mines, Langston Hughes poses the question, “What kind of poem / Would you / Make out of that?” (lines 4-6).
With Hughes’ poem in mind, write a four page essay about either “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile, A Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon” by Gwendolyn Brooks or the poem we read from Marilyn Nelson’s book of poetry, A Wreath for Emmett Till. In your essay analyze “what kind of poem” the author wrote about the murder of Emmett Till.
Your central claim should be an argument about the poem and how it depicts or represents the murder; it is your analysis of how the poem works and/or what it is intended to do. Be sure to quote from the poem and to refer to specific aspects or parts of the poem as you build your argument.
I also like to read Hughes’ poem alongside a lesser known poem, “That Girl From Rosebud with No Feet” by Cherokee poet and artist Jimmie Durham. (If you email me, I can send you a pdf of the poem.) The Durham poem is more complex in content and form than the Hughes, but it raises similar questions about “what kind” of poems should be written. In one section of the poem, entitled “Oh No! It’s Part 2!,” in which, Durham explains, “…the poet assumes a different voice / And self-consciously criticizes his lack of poetics,” the reader gets to observe Durham confront and dismiss his critics. It is in the voice of the critic that Durham ironically states, “….The bare fact do not / Make a poem….,” which means that they, in fact, do. This ironic statement seems to speak directly to the way the Hughes poem works as it is a poem in which “the bare facts” most certainly do “make a poem.”
Starting with “Johannesburg Mines” gets my students thinking critically about poetry from the very start of the semester. The questions it raises about the relationship between form and content can also be applied to other genres, and, in general, serve as a flexible frame for the entire course.