A few years ago one of my classes was discussing a poem called “Batter My Heart, Three-Personed God” by John Donne. I sat there listening to them talk about the poem and realized that something was really, really off. Their comments were, frankly, just weird.
After some time of listening to their struggling conversation, I called time out. We had a conversation:
Me: Okay, so let’s start at the beginning and see if we can break it down. The first line is “Batter my heart, three-personed God. “What does “Batter” mean?
Students: Like a cake?
Obviously, this was a problem.
This was also an epiphany. I realized that reading poetry is way easier than most students, or most people really, make it.
When students come into my class and see my syllabus for the first time, they are a bit dismayed that about half of my curriculum is poetry. Half of the AP Literature Exam, in fact, is poetry.
Because standardized testing in my state has not in recent years covered poetry, most students have little experience with this form of writing by the time they reach 12th grade.
They are thoroughly freaked out.
They think poetry is too hard. It’s too abstract. No one can tell what it means. Every time they try to figure out what it means, the teacher tells them that they are wrong. There are too many symbols and metaphors.
But what I have found is that students don’t understand poetry for the same reason they don’t understand other writing.
They don’t read it carefully.
It is generally acknowledged (and I’m sorry that I don’t know where this originated—if you know, please let me know in the comments) that there are three levels of interpreting a text: 1. The literal level, 2. the interpretive level, and 3. the evaluative level. We get so interested in teaching students to operate at the interpretive and evaluative levels, we devalue the literal level.
I am here to tell you that approximately 97.53% of the time, if my students are going to make a mistake with poetry, it will be on the literal level.
The great mysteries of poetic interpretation are delved not by contemplating deep paradoxes but by understanding grammar, vocabulary, and syntax. Students don’t know the subject of a certain verb; they that something being done “in vain” does not mean that the agent is prideful. That when Frost says the road “wanted wear,” he doesn’t mean that the road desired some new clothes. They don’t understand archaic language, words with multiple meanings, and even sometimes simple vocabulary.
This, I realized, I can teach.
I can teach them to answer questions like
- How many sentences are in this poem?
- What is the subject of this verb?
- What are words you don’t know? (Look them up. . .yes, I have to say this.)
- What does the phrase “in vain” mean? How is this different from being conceited?
- What is the difference between “ware” and “wear”? (If I’m selling wares, that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m in fashion marketing.)
- If I say I “want” something, what two different meanings could I be conveying?
Now, please understand. I do know that breaking down the literal level won’t be enough to fully analyze a poem. However, until a student has fully comprehended the literal level, they won’t be ready to move on to the upper levels of reading. I hope to address these further issues with moving to the upper levels of reading in coming weeks.
But in my experience, students try to skip immediately to interpretation when they still don’t know what all the words mean or where the sentence breaks are. As you can imagine, this throws off their reading of the poem and leads them to believe that they will never discover the hidden meanings that only teachers know.
I have already confessed to my secret crush on math; to this logical, linear-thinking girl, the idea that I can teach students a few black and white skills and greatly increase their comprehension of poetry is like having my proverbial cake and eating it with ice cream and a latte.
After I lick the batter.
What are your techniques for teaching students to break down the language of poetry?