Poems about Language
As a teacher of English Language (Linguistics) and English Literature, I always enjoy ways of bringing the two together - a kind of BOGOF of resource preparation!
I love to go out in late September
among the fat, overripe, icy, black blackberries
to eat blackberries for breakfast,
the stalks very prickly, a penalty
they earn for...
A lover both of eating blackberries straight from the bush in September and savouring unusual words, this poem delighted me - both for finding a like-minded spirit, and for its cheeky juxtapositioning. I haven't brought this into a classroom yet but it's only a matter of time. I fancy it as as a getting-to-know-you activity, with new students talking about words they particularly like to roll round in their mouths. I'll be far better at remembering that than I will their names!
Suddenly as the riot squad moved in, it was raining exclamation
Nuts, bolts, nails, car-keys. A fount of broken type. And the
Itself - an asterisk on the map. This hyphenated...
I was introduced to this poem during a workshop with teachers in Belfast, and it's a treasure. I love the way language is blown up and broken into the shards of punctuation marks by the complexity of talking about the conflict in Northern Ireland. It is such a rich and vivid way to introduce students to the idea of poetry as an embodiment of an idea, something far more than typing on a page.
My Darling, My Cliche
Don't start what you can't diminish.
A bird in the hand is worth nothing if it lies
stock still and won't sing. You can lead
a horse to water but you can't make it recite...
I suffer the problem - perhaps everyone does - of not being able to reach quickly enough into my mental repository for the examples that will amply illustrate the concept I'm trying to teach. Cliche has caught me out a few times, with students wondering what I'm going on about because this kind of langauge is invisible to them, and me standing there going "you know, um, like..." Problem solved with this poem! And fun to be had recognising the "real" cliches as a pre-reading activity.
I was eight, I was forced south.
Not long after, when I opened
my mouth, a strange thing happened.
I lost my Scottish accent.
Words fell off my tongue:
My grandad hightailed it out of Scotland when he was about 14-15-16-17-18-19 (according to different variations of the family mythology), all set to make his fortune in London. He did alright but he never went back. He did, however, retain a marked Perthshire accent until the day he died, and could, on occasion, be encouraged to "talk Scottish" - an entertaining party piece involving the single line "it's a braw bricht moonlit nicht the nicht". The only other lexical trace was an occasional contemptuous muttering about "Sassenachs", a word I've always loved. So, I love this poem for its reclamation of childhood word-wonder. As for teaching, great for introducing ideas about dialect, child language development and power.
Children are dumb to say how hot the day is,
How hot the scent is of the summer rose,
How dreadful the black wastes of evening sky,
How dreadful the tall soldiers drumming by,
But we have speech...
An intriguing poem that makes us puzzle out ideas about the purposes language serves. I never particularly planned to teach it, but when laminators became available in schools and colleges, my head of department took to binding poems in plastic and sticking them up at various strange heights on our classroom walls. This one was typed on yellow paper and stuck slightly to the left of the top left hand corner of my door frame. Being at the lower end of 5 foot something, I could barely read it, but tall lads did and wanted to know what it meant. We ditched the set text and had a very nice lesson exploring just that.
The Loch Ness Monster's Song
Hnwhuffl hhnnwfl hnfl hfl?
Gdroblboblhobngbl gbl gl g g g g glbgl.
Drublhaflablhaflubhafgabhaflhafl fl fl -
gm grawwwww grf grawf awfgm graw...
I think every Literature class I've ever taught has been introduced to this poem, as part of course induction questioning about what language is, and what poetry is. One of those lovely "teaching poems" that does all the work for you, and all the while its playful nature makes students think they're having fun.
The right word
Outside the door,
lurking in the shadows,
is a terrorist.
Is that the wrong description?
Outside that door,
taking shelter in the shadows,
is a freedom fighter...
Ideas about the differing connotations of related words is bread and butter English teaching stuff, and when it comes to words like "terrorist" double bread and butter when teaching Media components. How nice, then, to be able to mix it up a bit with this poem, which introduces these ideas in such an elegant and thought-provoking way.
Great Pan is not dead;
he simply emigrated
Here, the gods roam freely,
disguised as snakes or monkeys;
every tree is sacred
and it is a sin
to be rude to a book....
An excerpt of 'Search for my Tongue' has been a GCSE staple for years. I taught it last week to a class where every student but one was bilingual - sage nods all round, and a great starting point for discussion of their own experiences. This poem introduces the idea of language and power more directly - in the globalised-localised world we're living in, it's important to think about language as oppression, and for all our students - perhaps especially the monolingual ones - to think about English as a Global Language in the more textured way that this poem invites.