Luis Luna / Teaching poetry: some keys and tricks

During the conference proceedings series recorded in our pedagogical meeting in Paris (November, 2012), Luis Luna (Escuela de Escritores), within the “Poetry and emotions” lectures, presented a roadmap proposed as a practical reference for stimulation and self-discovery of a personal poetic voice in Poetry students

Teaching poetry: some keys and tricks

Luis Luna (Spain)


Most teachers training in the teaching of poetry for adults face several problems, especially those related to the different levels the students start off from when reaching their target schools. This disparity in origin may make us reset our working method each time we face difficulties, as we may for instance have in a rural area schools with different levels among the students. In order to cope with this task, my experience was to attend one of those rural schools and learn how to develop a course methodology as satisfactory as possible, in terms of student and teacher. As results of this practice I was able to learn that the most important thing to do is to establish a reference level to start from, as we have no means of giving individual teaching. This reference level must have a verge from which the pupils may begin by themselves. That is, according to our practice, the knowledge of certain referential readings and some rhetorical tools to let them labour with language itself.

Once established the referential level, the teacher must develop several strategies for the fulfilment of a good group working, leading to the individual and group awareness. It may be of interest to think, as Piaget, Vygotsky or Ausubel suggested, that learning must be meaningful, that is, related to other previous learning establishing a clear area of close development, including tasks linked to the former knowledge.

Taking these considerations into account, we must give priority the self-discovery of their own poetic voice, underlining several facts:

a) Imitative writing. Practicing imitative writing boosts the discovery of our own voice. All along the workshops we will discover how increasing the distance from the model tends to let our own word emerge. We have to bear in mind that this progressive fractioning must be taken very slowly and also including some cracks for free writing, where the pupil even without being aware of it, develops his / her own devices to cope with the limited supply of language in front of the showing of one’s own feelings. These drills must also take advantage of a capacity to explain the rhetorical resources, focused on expressive or beauty increasing, understood in a wide sense. There are some tricks that may help the teacher face this task, without establishing a learning routine which might exhaust the students and push them to leave the workshop. These tricks consist among all in measuring the tasks, which go from those purely imitative, free ones, thematically or formally conditioned and those which merge inside the talking inside the workshop. Along with this task, it is not recommended, as my experience tells, to leave aside the performance of improvised exercises coming out from those previously mentioned talks. It is also important to correct and elaborate the exercises in group, favoring coeducation and co evaluation.

b) This co-educative character is precisely an important aspect in our own learning process as teachers, being conscious that our role is that of mediators in the teaching-learning process within the workshops. Mutual learning and interchange must be allowed among students. Contradictions must be placed to encourage progress. We will choose and show different texts already dealt with along the process. We will accept every production from our students, creating a hearing and word mood. We will boost situations in which we may use poetical language, etc. The key to it is clear: the goal is not create disciples but to generate criticism and personal creation.

c) Learning the concept “privative language”. One of the most interesting parts of the process established inside the poetry workshops is that of the discovery of poetry as privative language itself, that is to say, a highly specialized language coded between reader and producer, building liquid micro-societies. To enhance this learning process, generating ties between poetic language and the mechanisms of its conformation and other languages as publicity, advertising, propaganda, etc. This learning also lets way to the teaching of poetical images construction through practice, as it helps the pupils in the task of how to progressively build those images and the endless possibilities poets have, not to fall into the trap of excessive obscurity. Through these tasks we may also focus on different trends or streams in poetry, especially underlying the dichotomy poetry-as-means-of-communication and poetry-as-learning. That is when the classroom becomes a lab ready for experimentation on linguistics and poetry and, if needed we might use as many resources as we have available, from new technologies up to detailed analysis of conversational language, building the borders between common place and estrangement, proper of poetical language.

d) The study of the semantic field theory. To start with, it could be seen that deepening into such a complex study as this linguistic theory developed in the 30’s under the Saussureian structuralism would be found as counterproductive in the search of the own voice for our students. Nevertheless, an adequate understanding and practice of it could lead us to a deep knowledge about how we structure language and which are the words that generate philias and phobias in us, apart from getting advantage of a wide lexical control every creator requires to have. It is really interesting to explore the process by which our pupils find their own fetish words which will be useful for them in finding their own poetical Word and how those words increase their relations towards others, so as in the end, we create a subtle connection net of an emotional kind among objects, experiences… that affect us. The creation of this web and its de-automatization builds a large part of what would be the success in getting their own personal voice.

e) The learning of the Word as a phonetic and rhythmical phenomenon. It is a must that pupils get to be aware of the capacity of words to get a further meaning beyond their own semantic meaning, through their sound qualities. If we pay attention to the relation between singing, reciting and poetry, we may imbricate our pupils towards several discoveries, among them the phenomenon of euphony, the key to some poetic expressions. Furthermore, we will explain the etymological meaning of the word rhythm, coming from the Greek work meaning flow.

We must then, set a key here: considering the poetical text as a musical text in which the basic distinction is made between sound and silence, expressed by graphics and absences. It is convenient, in order to reinforce this theory to know phonetic poetry and motivate the creation of poems without any sense in the straight meaning, but full of harmonic meaning into the readers’ side. It is also important to get them to be aware of their own vital pulse rhythms (as everything surrounding us has a kind of rhythm) to develop their own and hence conform creation.

One of the most suitable gadgets is the recording of the texts created by our pupils and practice intuitive listening, where group correcting mechanisms and selfcorrection must be generated. We must consider that the audition memory of our students has already grown, as it is usual for them to listen to music in a foreign language they do not understand, and even so, they are able to decode the primary emotions music causes on us.

f) The learning of poetry as a holistic whole, whose first main change is that of the way of looking at oneself. This is one of the “tricks” or keys that have helped me most when dealing with the workshops. The students are conditioned by the surrounding environment and the usual means of learning, apart from the use of an abstract language based on the priorities of information transmission. This condition adds in itself gadgets to automatic reality absorption, leaving aside selfreflection on a reality constantly changing. It is a must for our lessons to help our pupils to educate their sight, in such a way that they establish a critical point of view of their own, far from stereotypes, generalization and common grounds. This way of “peering through new eyes”, leads us to include any topicality into poetry, paying attention not to the information transmitted but into the message being transmitted itself. To work out these learning duties we may use several varied drills, such as focusing on an object about which we write or, if available, take a walk that may let us spot some new perspectives about what we see, leaving aside the straight use it may have. It becomes important to deal with the concept immaterial heritage at this point in order to give example of the importance of the ephemerae, which cannot be measured, quantified or be given any immediate use.

All these lines are mainly orientative and under constant revision as a whole. Nevertheless the systematic use of those above mentioned guidelines generates a deep thinking on language, reality and poetry having as a goal learning, selfknowledge and personal creativity.