Introducing Poetry in ENWR 106

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
Would you
Make out of that?
240,000 natives
Working in the
Johannesburg mines.

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
for lack
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.

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6 thoughts on “Introducing Poetry in ENWR 106

  1. I am going to begin my discussion of poetry with the poem by Billy Collins on page 570 of the Bedford book:

    I ask them to take a poem
    and hold it up to the light
    like a color slide

    or press an ear against its hive

    I say drop a mouse into a poem
    and watch him probe his way out,

    or walk inside the poem’s room
    and feel the walls for a light switch.

    I want them to water-ski
    across the surface of a poem
    waving at the author’s name on the shore.

    But all they want to do
    is tie the poem to a chair with rope
    and torture a confession out of it.

    They begin beating it with a hose
    to find out what it really means.

    I also read to them the words of Alan Ginsberg:

    “Poetry is not an expression of the party line. It’ stat time of night lying in bed, thinking what you really think, making the private world public, that’s what the poet does.”

    I then give them an exercise in which they write a poem. I give them Whitman’s poem, or the first few lines of it:

    THERE was a child went forth every day;
    And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became;
    And that object became part of him for the day, or a certain part of the day, or for many years, or stretching cycles of years.

    The early lilacs became part of this child,
    And grass, and white and red morning-glories, and white and red clover, and the song of the phoebe-bird,
    And the Third-month lambs, and the sow’s pink-faint litter, and the mare’s foal, and the cow’s calf,
    And the noisy brood of the barn-yard, or by the mire of the pond-side,
    And the fish suspending themselves so curiously below there—and the beautiful curious liquid,
    And the water-plants with their graceful flat heads—all became part of him.

    Instead of the second stanza, I ask them to fill in experiences of their own, using sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. Five lines in which they mention things that have become part of them.

    I don’t know too much about poetry, but this exercise gives the students a little thrill, knowing how they can write their own poems. It also introduces them to one of my favorite poets, Walt Whitman.

    Poems are also short, and therefore manageable in class. I have several students read the same poem. We memorize We Real Cool, and one or two students act it out in front of the class, strutting and posing as the boys in the group would have done.

    How I love teaching with poetry, even if I know little about it.

    • I love Billy Collins “Introduction to Poetry,” and always try to use it. My favorite poem to open a poetry unit is “beware: do not read this poem” by Ishmael Reed:

      tonite, thriller was
      about an old woman, so vain she
      surrounded herself with
      many mirrors
      it got so bad that finally she
      locked herself indoors & her
      whole life became the
      mirrors
      one day the villagers broke
      into her house, but she was too
      swift for them. she disappeared
      into a mirror
      each tenant who bought the house
      after that, lost a loved one to
      the old woman in the mirror:
      first a little girl
      then a young woman
      then the young woman’s husband
      the hunger of this poem is legendary
      it has taken in many victims
      back off from this poem
      it has drawn in your feet
      back off from this poem
      it has drawn in your legs

      back off from thias poem
      it is a greedy mirror
      you are into this poem. from
      the waist down
      nobody can hear you can they?
      this poem has had you up to here
      belch
      this poem aint got no manners
      you cant call out from this poem
      relax now & go with this poem
      move & roll on to this poem
      do not resist this poem
      this poem has your eyes
      this poem has his head
      this poem has his arms
      this poem has his fingers
      this poem has his fingertips

      this poem is the reader & the
      reader the poem

      statistic: the US bureau of missing persons re-
      ports that in 1968 over 100,000 people
      disappeared leaving no solid clues
      nor trace only
      a space in the lives of their friends

  2. Oh, that is good. I usually start with “l(a” by e. e. cummings, which gives us a chance to talk about word choice, word order, form, shape, etc.

    I never really understood/liked poetry until I started teaching it and now it’s my favorite to teach. At the end of the semester, I usually have my students write a poem and then we do a poetry slam for the final. I had a student start the semester talking about how little he read, and he wrote so many drafts of different poems for the final, he didn’t know which one to pick. Poetry is awesome.

  3. Jen, this is genius. I am so bummed that I didn’t read this sooner! UGH!

    I do teach Mary Oliver’s “Singapore” which also has meta-talk about poetry, so at least I got at some of this, but I think the Hughes poem and your questions about it are way more effective. Oliver’s poem tends to lead students to celebrate aesthetics as a moral tool without any complication; poetry as poorism, yuck. Even when I raise the complication, it’s hard for them to see the issue. Hughes lays this problem bare. It’s so much better!

    I know this conversation is over, but I had to compliment you on this. Next year…

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