Soft-footing into poetry

Venkatesh Onkar

Teaching students who were enthusiastic about poetry, good at writing it, and eager to get ideas for writing new poems, I considered the kind of poetry that they were usually taught in school (and the way it was taught) and I felt that an opportunity was being missed. Why not introduce them to the great poetry of the present and the past? It was a logical next step in the development of their own writing: it could give them new ideas for their poems, and it would be good in other ways too. If they felt a close relationship to adult poetry now, they could go on enjoying it and learning from it for a long time…

Rose, Where Did you Get That Red? by Kenneth Koch

Imagine if every child going through school read ten well-chosen and thought-provoking poems every academic year (one every three weeks, approximately). Each poem might not take long to read: perhaps ten minutes, followed by another ten or fifteen minutes of class discussion. This discussion could be non-directed and open ended; it could include pictures and images that come up in the child’s head, unusual or perplexing words in the poem, startling imagery that sticks in the mind, a pondering over what the poem “means.” By the time she/he reaches middle school, the child could well know 50 poems that have, hopefully, cumulatively built a sense of richness and depth in the use of language. More importantly, these readings could inculcate a habit of expanding the scope of reading, of using language to introspect, to wonder about meaning…. The case for using poetry in such a manner in any language programme seems obvious.

In the middle school classroom, poetry works in many dimensions. Poems are generally brief, and can be woven into a curriculum easily. They compress meaning and intensify the use of language in ways that other literary forms rarely achieve, and thus build sensitivity to language and meaning. They easily lead to a meta-level of analysis in these realms. Through memorisation, poems can build a sense of the subtle implicit rhythms of language. They can be used easily in presentations, either as recitations or more creatively as theatrical performances. The scope and richness of poetry as a teaching aid is quite dazzling for an educator.

Some suggestions for a middle school classroom
I strongly feel there are no new “tricks” to enhance the learning and appreciation of language! There are really no substitutes for a strong foundation: deep immersion, wide exposure, time to discuss and play with ideas, and space to experiment with both reading and writing. In what follows, I will briefly describe what has “worked” in a middle school classroom in terms of poetry writing.

The author works with Centre for Learning, Bangalore. He can be reached at

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