Sunday, March 17, 2013

Close Reading and Poetry: Why Poetry and the Common Core Don't Mix

[update: In case you disagree totally with my premise, you can stop reading and click here to find three titles recommended for Meeting the CCSS Through Poetry.  Or perhaps head over to The OWL and follow their close reading of a Shakespeare sonnet. I have continued this idea in a post called On Listening to Poetry.]

There are times when a passionate and highly qualified ELA teacher needs to disregard the advice of experts. The teaching of poetry is one of these times.

To be blunt: Poetry should not be read using a Close Reading Method.  This will destroy for students both its beauty and its power.

As you know, The Method recommended and now being modeled for teachers all over the country and in numerous videos requires a 3-step read:
  1. What does the text say? (may include teacher read-aloud - some recommend marginal and in-text notation, although these are generally discouraged)
  2. How does it say it? (reread, focus on structure and language, tone, mood, symbol, POV, etc.)
  3. What does the text mean? (relate to other texts, to me and my life maybe, author's purpose, support ideas or thesis with textual quotations)
Shanahan argues that not all texts require a close reading, because they are not deserving of it. I would hate to have poetry lumped into this category and therefore disregarded in ELA classrooms.  

I argue that no poetry requires a close reading because poetry deserves something else.  What?  My thoughts are captured (and better expressed) by poet James Dickey. His (selected) thoughts can be found in this piece from Brain Pickings, "How to Enjoy Poetry."  In sum, he is saying that poetry must be made intensely personal from the first reading. A poem does not mean in the same sense as a narrative, argument, or informational text.  That is not to say that any meaning is OK. A reader can be totally wrong about a poem. 

For example, Frost's wonderful poem "Spring Pools":

These pools that, though in forests, still reflect
The total sky almost without defect,
And like the flowers beside them, chill and shiver,
Will like the flowers beside them soon be gone,
And yet not out by any brook or river,
But up by roots to bring dark foliage on.
The trees that have it in their pent-up buds
To darken nature and be summer woods---
Let them think twice before they use their powers
To blot out and drink up and sweep away
These flowery waters and these watery flowers
From snow that melted only yesterday. 

The poem can be grossly over-read (as it is here), over-simplified (as it is here), and definitely it can be confounding (as it is here).  As is true of much of Frost, dichotomy obscures meaning; dichotomy often, in fact, is the meaning.  Not at all simple. Not at all impersonal. All of the images are open to a dichotomous interpretation. Students asked to parse this poem will find it easy to support a simple meaning (nature is violent, for example) without grappling with the deeper questions embedded in the poem.  

Should students be asked for meaning when the poet does not offer it?  

Many poems require feeling deeply - in the sense of using all of the senses as a reader rather than emotion - rather than finding meaning.  That is Dickey's point. To teach poetry, then, it is important to examine the text itself (How does it work? What is the effect of...) for the purpose of understanding and translating the feelings aroused in the reader. In Dickey's words, "You will come to understand the world as it interacts with words, as it can be re-created by words, by rhythms and by images."  

The reading of poetry can not reduced to a formula with accompanying organizer. I am afraid this will mean that fewer and fewer ELA teachers will teach poems that do not have a clear thematic relationship to another text - less complex poems that Shanahan and I would agree do not merit a close reading.  What will be lost is the joy of the single word, the moment of clarity when a reader makes a personal and deeply realized connection to...something.  

ELA teachers need to fight to keep great poetry in the classrooms.

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