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The case for poetry in the EFL classroom


Nelly Zafeiriadou
Part I
That poetry and literature in general became the forgotten man in the foreign
language classroom during the 1970s and early 1980s can be partly ascribed to the advent
of communicative language teaching. The emphasis on the study of English for specific
practical purposes which meant emphasis upon oral rather written language, helped to
ensure that literary texts were denied space in the teaching of English as a foreign or
second language. Looking through TEFL/TESL writings in those years one can find little
about the teaching of literary texts and hardly anything controversial. The role of literary
texts in the language classroom and the relationship between language teaching and
literature teaching in the EFL context seemed to be totally neglected.
Moreover, the attitude of many teachers as to integrating literary texts into language
teaching remained ambivalent and often negative. Literature was thought of as embodying
a static, convoluted kind of language, far removed of the utterances of daily
communication (Collie and Slater 1987:2) and therefore not suitable at a pre-university
level. In addition , the advent of communicativism ushered EFL teaching in functionspecific and task-based activities which helped to displace what was seen as the elitist and
the irrelevant medium of literature.
However, during the 1980s the situation seemed to be changing . The EFL movement
has seen a strong reawakening of interest in literature study, which much impetus provided
by literary stylistics, discourse analysis and what Short terms the fusion of literary and
linguistic method (Short 1982:55). This in turn has triggered an extensive reconsideration
of the issue within the language teaching profession provoking a steady flow of articles in
professional journals, language-based literature course books, conferences and curricular
reviews. Books such as Mc Ray and Boardman (1984), Gower and Pearson (1986), Carter
and Long (1987), Clarke (1989), Maley and Duff (1989), Carter and Long (1991) are
characterized by a paradigm shift from the traditional, teacher-centred approach to a much
more student-centred model, its aims defined by the stimulation of personal response and
the development of communicative competence.

Why teach poetry ?


When it comes to the issue of what works of literature are suitable for use with
language learners, then one often has to confront typical objections to using poetry in the
classroom and the notion or poetry as a not proper material for foreign language learning.
The following remarks , all made by language teachers, depict clearly the size of the issue:
If poetrys deviant language, whats the point of using it with language learners?
They want to know whats right, not whats wrong!
We are trying to help our learners to communicate in contemporary colloquial
English, not in stilted poetical terms.
My students dont read poetry in their own language, so how can they possibly
read it in English?
Its alright to use poetry with students who intend to study literature further when
they leave school. But reading poetry is too specialised an activity for most
students, isnt it?
Most authentic poems are very difficult to understand, even for native speakers, as
their meaning is rarely overt and their use of language is idiosyncratic.

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Ive got a very demanding syllabus to get through, so theres no real time for
playing around with poetry in my lessons. 1
So, why introduce poetry in the language classroom when the teachers remarks drawn
usually from their own experience are so discouraging? There many substantial reasons to
do so:
Historical and cultural reasons- poetry is a form of saying existed from the time of
the emergence of human race since prehistorical times and has survived through
centuries in every society springing from deep human impulses and fulfilling human
needs
Motivational reasons- poetry evokes feelings and a strong imagery; it offers a rich
and varied repertoire of themes in short pieces of writing and can be a real source
of pleasure for teacher and students.

Linguistic reasons- poetry is mainly rhythm and rhythm is a principle of life and all
activity and is deeply involved with the very origin of language which involves
rhythm, stress and similarities of sound
pedagogic reasons- poetry more than any other literary genre leaves space for selfexpression and for creative productive activities.
However, one could not ignore the underlying issues that the teachers quotations
reveal; the fact that poetry is seen as an extra and superfluous rather than an integral
part of the language programme, and that whenever the poem is seen in isolation, then,
two extreme attitudes emerge: the poem is a rare flower-an orchid-to be admired but
not touched, or the poem is a thorn in the flesh, a bothersome text in deviant
language, involving a ritual of tedious questions which merely slow up the learning
process. (Tomlinson 1996). Being my self a teacher I will attempt an analysis of the
issues that these fears or inhibitions reveal as to the teaching of poetry in the
following sections

Literary competence and linguistic competence- In defense of poetry


One of the purposes of this article is to illustrate a way in which when using poetry in the
language classroom, literary and linguistic competence can co-exist harmoniously ,
enjoying a relationship of mutual dependency and development. At this point , a brief
review in the bibliography of what has come to be termed as literary competence would be
useful.
Widdowson, draws a distinction between what he sees as the study of literature which
is associated with rote-learning of authors, dates, literary conventions, and the learning of
literature, what he sees as a subjective appreciation based upon individual response.
(Widdowson, 1985:184)
Carter and Long (1991:3-4), similarly argue about the importance of a distinction
between the study of literature and the use of literature as a resource. They claim that
whereas the first approach is not but an arid accumulation of facts about literary contexts,
dates, authors, titles of texts, names of conventions, literary terms, which is a knowledge
about literature, the second approach, a knowledge for literature, is better expressed in
terms of pleasure and enjoyment, a kind of emotional and experiential involvement.
The historical-biographical approach to the teaching of literature was not devised to
enhance individual response to the text. Brumfits balanced criterion for literary
competence in the reader, recognises the need for a combination of both study and
learning. We read:
the fundamental of a good reader of literature is the ability to generalise from the given
text to either other aspects of the literary Ttradition or personal or social significances
outside literature.(Brumfit,1985:108)

Warning also that an over-emphasis upon content can hinder the linguistic
development of the students he anticipates the paradoxical danger that while students
become more sophisticated in their knowledge of literature, they may be unable to operate
1

Cited in Tomlinson,1996:33 and in Lazar,1993:99

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the linguistic system effectively in discussing that knowledge. Such considerations lead into
the following questions: How much language competence is needed before a literary text
and in particular poetry can be read in the language classroom? What exactly is meant by
literary competence and what kind of literary competence do we wish to develop in our
students by introducing the teaching of poetry?
Answers to these question are not easy to provide and are further connected with the
question of which is the suitable literary text for a second language learner. Especially
poetry , suffers from associations with a special register of English which employs a florid
style, dramatic language and archaisms. The following lines from Wordsworths , To The
Skylark, characterise this literary register:
Ethereal minstrel! Pilgrim of the sky!
Dost thou despise the earth whose cares abound?
Yet, language teachers should not feel inhibited so as to introducing poetry in their
teaching. Language difficulty has ,by no means, to be taken into consideration for the
reason that access to the poem is restricted if the students cannot reach at least a basic
level of comprehension. More important though in the case of poetry is, that access on an
experiential level will be restricted. That is, our students need to identify with the
experiences, thoughts and situations which are depicted in the text; to discover the kind of
pleasure and enjoyment which comes from making the text their own, and interpreting it in
relation to their own knowledge of themselves and of the world they inhabit. A reader who is
genuinely involved with the text is likely to gain most benefit to the language of literature
and in this way, a literary text can be a vital support and stimulus for language
development.(Carter and Long,1991:6).
Poetry, more than any other literary genres, seen under the light of this potential, offers
a rich resource of pleasure, an emotional and experiential involvement for our students and
it does this in a very economic way. Who could deny the potential experiential and
interpretative value of lines as:
Every evening
Before she went to bed
Mrs ONeil said

And when she died


He never even went
To her funeral.
( Mrs O Neill, by Richard Hill)

Goodnight
To the nice announcer
On her small TV
Because she was eighty
And very much alone
Poetry can offer both a public and a personal face, for hardly any poem means only one
thing. It can suggest individual interpretations or interpretations common to people and this
can be an enormous pedagogic advantage for the creative teacher. It means that each
learners personal interpretation has validity. It also means that, because each persons
perception is different and unique, an almost infinite fund of interactive discussion and
exchange of ideas may spring. (Maley and Duff,1989:10). This experiential involvement
could become more absorbing and motivating for students than the pseudo-narratives
frequently found in course books. As Widdowson,(1984:163-4) appositely remarks, material
writers having got rid of literature proceed to invent their own. Textbooks are full of fiction
and misleading bad imitations of poetic constructions. We follow the Miller family, son
Jimmy, daughter Barbara in a dramatic sketch entitled This isnt tea!
Barbara: Run, Jimmy!
Jimmy: Where?
Barbara: To the empty table!
Jimmy: Which table?
Barbara : The big table!
Mrs Miller: Sit down! Sit down! Jimmy! Thats the table!
Mrs Miller: The square table!

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Jimmy: Is this it?
Barbara: No, not the round table. Thats a small table. Run to the square table.
The apparently half- witted Jimmy is eventually directed to the desired table, but the
problems of the Miller family are not over yet.
Man: Excuse me. Is this your table?
Jimmy: Yes, it is.
Man: Oh!
Mr Miller: Are these cups of coffee or cups of tea?
Waiter: Tea, sir.
Mrs Miller: No, they arent. They are cups of coffee.
Waiter: Sorry, sir. Those are your cups of tea.
Barbara: Yes, these are their cups of coffee and those are our cups of tea.
It is almost impossible to sort out what is going on in this travesty of interaction. The
dialogue has been devised for displaying language structure. And Widdowson carries on:
Learners are meant to read and indeed to enact this charade in all seriousness, it is
not supposed to be funny, or even remotely entertaining. Students solemnly
participate without being humanly engaged.( 1984:163)
Widdowson deploys very efficiently his argumentation, but what is furthermore felt
behind, is an issue of ideological and pedagogical dimension. Students are being denied
of an exposure to authentic texts and what this exposure might mean in the language
learning process. They are being underestimated and disempowered from their ability to
grapple with a text and its language, and to relate it to the values and traditions of their own
society. This leads to the issue of the language of poetry, its deviant nature and the
problems that it might create in a language-based approach, and it will be discussed in the
following section.

The deviant language of poetry


Although it is not among the intentions of the present essay to offer a course in poetics,
it is essential to consider what is special about poetry. In other words, how do we recognise
that one piece of language is poetry and another is not?
Many people, if asked, would say that poetry is language that rhymes, as in:
I put my hat upon my head
And walked into the Strand,
And there I met another man,
Whose hat was in his hand.
Or,
I am his Highness dog from Kew,
Pray tell me sir, whose dog are you?

Yet, if we asked whether the following lines was poetry we would almost certainly get a
positive answer though they do not rhyme:
The small blue flower
Dies among its petals.
The night,
And my tears,
Fall together.
So how do we perceive these as poetry? A simplistic answer would be we just know. A
more sophisticated one would be that poems make use of a variety of linguistic devices,
which though they may be found in other forms of language such as jokes, puns and
riddles, advertisements and political slogans, it is probably true to say that poetry employs
a higher concentration of such devices or effects than other forms of discourse. For this
reason, poetry has been described as deviating from the norms of language.
(Widdowson,1984:146).
2

quoted from Maley,A. and Moulding, S.1985 Poem into Poem, p.135

Poetry is made from language, but what do we perceive the language of poetry to
consist of? The term is ambiguous; on one hand it may refer to langue, the underlying
system of common knowledge, and on the other to parole, the particular realization of this
knowledge as instances of behaviour, and as Widdowson,(1984) emphatically points out:
we cannot understand the aesthetic effect of poetry without recognizing what kind
of discourse it is, and the nature of its deviance from normal language. Poems, I
have argued, represent unique language systems in which the regularities of
langue and parole convergeThey express therefore, what no other use of
language is capable of expressing: a kind of converse reality, a different existential
order in another dimension of experience(Widdowson, 1984:149).
By way of example, he cunningly aligns extracts from Hopkins At the Wedding March,
Then let the march tread our ears:
I to him turn with tears
Along with students written errors which sound remarkably poetic:
-it sads me in my heart to leave you
-the door is strange to be unlocked3
Without knowing in advance which line is poetry and which pure error, the reader
assumes that the syntactic deviation involved is part of the writers deliberate attempt to
fashion a particular effect. The inference we may draw from Widdowsons examples is that
syntactic distortions are not only tolerated in poetry, but they are central to the style and
effect upon which poetry depends for its meaning.
This clearly has some important implications for the use of poetry in the language
classroom and regarding the language teacher, it poses two questions. Firstly, in order to
make sense of what is new, original use of language the students need some familiarity
with the norms or rules from which this use deviates. Some teachers may feel that the
knowledge of the norms or correct language is not yet sufficiently well-established by
students for them to appreciate when the norms are being stretched. Secondly, teachers
might worry that exposing students to more creative uses of language could, in fact,
legitimise the use of deviant or incorrect language in the classroom.
However,an important point to bear in mind is that in fact, language is not so rigidly
governed by rules as we might think. A closer look at some native speakers informal
conversation could reveal many incorrect uses of English syntactically and grammatically;
yet, communication among the speakers remains unimpeded. Therefore, when poetry is
introduced in the classroom, it could serve a basis for expanding the students language
awareness and interpretative abilities; a rather useful tool than an inhibition for the
language teacher.(Lazar,1993:99-100)
Defending poetry Ramsaran (1983) in her article Poetry in the language classroom,
draws up a more comprehensive analysis of the range of poetic deviations and
demonstrates how poems may be analysed in language classes so as to illustrate different
linguistic features. Students will need a sophisticated knowledge of the language in order
to interpret a difficult poem in terms of technique. But before they reach that stage,
carefully selected poetry may perhaps be used to help develop their knowledge of
language.(Ramsaran,1983:36)
The types of deviations she considers are:
1. Phonological deviation eg. rhyme, alliteration, or parallelism as seen in Popes
where eer you walk.where eer you tread.
2. Lexical deviation, eg. in the Old House by Peter Redgrove I lay in an agony of
imagination as the wind
3. Syntactic deviation, as seen in Evans by R.S.Thomas Evans? Yes, many a time I
came down his bare flight.
4. Semantic deviation, eg. in Gods Little Mountain by Geoffrey Hill .the mountain
stamped its foot
3

quoted from Widdowson ,1984 in Explorations in Applied Linguistics 2, p.141

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5. Stylistic deviation. Here Ramsaran looks at poems for study specifically because
they are mixed stylistically eg. Poetry of Departures by Philip Larkin, in which the
language of casual conversation is unexpectedly juxtaposed with colloquial, then
heightened language:
Sometimes you hear, fifth-hand,
As epitaph:
He chucked up everything
And just cleared off,
And always the voice will sound
Certain you approve
This audacious, purifying,
Elemental move.
Following her suggestions where a poem reflects conversational spoken language, it
could be used for rhythm and intonation practice; where it deviates in any respect from
standard English, the deviation could be a point of departure for discussion or practice
concerned with grammatical structures. Moreover, it can be used for expanding vocabulary
at the simplest level or for a stylistic analysis at a more sophisticated and advanced level.
(Ramsaran,1983:42)
Widdowsons considerations regarding the nature of poetry and Ramsarans
suggestions how selected poetry is useful at different levels, have certain pedagogic
implications which lead to classroom procedures. Making the language of the poem the
basis for language study is a helpful first step towards enabling students to make confident
interpretations of a poem. Furthermore, they lead to the consideration of some of the
issues which are rudiment to the teaching of poetry : the issue of the figurative language
of poetry, the issue of stylistics and its place in a language-based approach , and last but
not least the more general issue of appropriacy ,evaluation and selection of the materials
to be taught.

The figurative language of poetry


Since many students read little poetry in their own language, reading poetry in a
foreign language might seem a daunting prospect and without an even elementary
understanding of the language of the poem it becomes impossible. It should be mentioned
at this point, that teachers obviously need to ensure that the choice of the poems is
suitably graded to the level of the students and that the students are given as much
linguistic help is possible. At the same time, it may be often the case especially with
younger ages, that students do, in fact, understand the literal meaning of each element in
the poem without being able to an interpretation of its deeper meaning. Students may lack
confidence in doing so; they may lack appropriate strategies for making interpretations; or
they may not be culturally familiar with the notions of drawing inferences and making
interpretations.
In poetry, words may take on powerful figurative meaning beyond their fixed
dictionary definition. Although it was assumed that figurative language would be too difficult
for foreign learners to cope with, therefore poetry and highly figurative texts would be out
of their reach, Hill(1989) defends the case for metaphorical language:
Much of our everyday idiom is frozen metaphor which was once new and
vivid but has now become so well used as to pass unnoticedWhen used
by a great writer, metaphorical language will cause the reader to see some
object or event in a new light, and providing that the language is not of itself
strange, the metaphor should be as easy to understand for a foreign learner as
it is for a native speaker. (Hill,1989:96).
The principle Hill (1989:97-100) is proposing is that initially, consideration of
figurative language could be of a fairly simplistic nature, but as the students gradually
develop in their ability to respond to texts in a more sophisticated way, they will be able to
study figurative works in more detail. And since figurative language is liable to appear
more frequently and more overtly in poetic works, it is therefore liable to receive more
attention in the poetry lesson than elsewhere.

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Teachers could devise activities which gently lead students towards an understanding
of the figurative language of a text and towards using literary metalanguage to make
interpretations of their own. Such language might be related to:
Imagery-simile and metaphor (including personification and symbolism)
synecdoche and metonymy
Tone-including understatement and hyperbole, register shift and irony and, in
case of poetry particularly:
Sound devices- rhyme, alliteration (including assonance and consonance)
and onomatopoeia. ( Hill,1989:97)
Students need to acquire the ability to speculate about a poets intentions when
figurative language is used, and the connotations and allusions contained in the figures
should be explored in depth. It is not sufficient, for example, to say that Rossettis My
heart is like a singing bird is a simile; the various associations between song birds and
happiness need to be explored. But how could the teacher find his/her way through and
make students enjoy poetry and not demotivate them using difficult metalanguage?
Three model- exercises are presented which aim to help students with the understanding
and use of metaphorical language.4:
Exercise A
Place the metaphor and its everyday equivalent side by side and allow the
students to say why they think the metaphor is the most revealing.
1. The great, gold ball of day
Sprang up from the dark hill
The sun rose above the hill (Judith Wright)
2. And how the silence surged softly backwards
When the plunging hooves were gone
It was silent again after he rode off (Walter de la Mare)
Exercise B
Supply a choice of words or phrases to replace those which bear the metaphoric
weight of the extract and allow the students to choose which they find the most
effective.
1. How the silence (flowed, slithered, surged, streamed) back
When the (plunging, chattering, noisy, clip-clopping) hooves were gone.
2. Her eyes, lost in the fatty ridge of her face, looked like:
a) Two small pieces of coal pressed into a lump of dough
b) Two raisins in a lump of dough
c) Two black buttons on a white lumpy cushion
from A rose for Emily by W Faulkner
Exercise C
Prepare students for an effective metaphor by asking them to produce their own
description of the object or event before reading the passage. Asking them to
describe snow falling on a town, for example, could be a prelude to reading
London Snow by Robert Bridges or First Snow in Alsace by Richard Wilbur.
(Hill,1989:97-8)
I have the strong feeling though, that teachers who wish to integrate poetry in their
syllabus need bear in mind that an analysis of a poem is a creative experiential process
and it should never degenerate into a sterile literary terminology exercise. Furthermore,
questions raising from such an exploration are first, how far teachers should make use of
literary metalanguage in the classroom, and second, with what ages and levels of
students such a use would be most appropriate.
Starting from the second question, it seems to me that activities to familiarise students
with literary metalanguage would be more appropriate with adult learners from upper
intermediate onwards with an interest in reading or studying literature, although some
adolescent learners with rather academic aspirations might find it useful. As far as the first
question is concerned, there are arguments in favour or against the use of literary
terminology in the poetry classroom. Students could be familiarised with only the more
4

for more information see Hill,1989:97-103

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commonly used terms like metaphor, simile or sound devises like rhyme and alliteration
or, the teacher may feel that this information becomes alienating, confusing and finally
demotivating. In addition to this, the teacher must not forget, that the point of any
exercise on a set text whether related to imagery, register study or form, is that it should
add to the students enjoyment and emotional involvement with the poem. From my
teaching experience so far, I feel that there is no one single approach to the presentation
and teaching of poetry; there is always room for further exploration ,and each teacher has
his or her own style. But above all considerations, it seems to me that there is one
component underlying successful engagement with poetry and literature, in general. As
Carter and Long appositely remark:
..this is a teachers enthusiasm for literature and his or her ability to convey
this enthusiasm to the students and to help them respond with the same
enjoyment and pleasure.(Carter and Long,1991:28)
Concluding, this first part of the article attempted to present the case for poetry in the
EFL classroom referring mostly to the theoretical background of it, the strong reasons for
introducing poetry in the language classroom and some of the difficulties or particularities
that such a decision may entail for the language teacher. The discussion will continue in
the second part of the article with the role of stylistics in the poetry lesson, the issue of
materials selection, such as parameters and criteria the teacher should take into
consideration before exploring poetry with the students and it will conclude with the
presentation of a teaching approach to Wilfred Owens poem Dulce et Decorum est.

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Collie,J and Slater,S 1987 Literature in the Language Classroom, Cambridge:Cambridge University
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Gower, R 1986 Can Stylistic Analysis Help the EFL Learner to Read Literature? in ELT Journal 40,2
Hall,L 1989 Poetry for Life: A practical Guide to Teaching Poetry in the Primary School, London:
Cassell
Hill, J 1986 Using Literature in Language Teaching, London: McMillan.
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______ 1994 Using Literature at Lower Levels in ELT Journal 48,2
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