Monday, October 16, 2006

Magazine Article on Writing Poetry

One of my part-time teaching jobs is at a school called Bacon Writing School, or something like that. They mostly teach writing in Chinese, but there are a few classes in English. I'm the only native English speaker there, so they asked me to write some articles in English for their quarterly magazine. I have to admit that I don't do much (okay, any) research for these articles, and I could be completely wrong in some of the assertions I make. The thing is, the only people who read the articles are the other people who work at the school, and the parents of the students. This is not an audience which a very high level of English understanding per capita, so I have to assume that I could write almost anything and get away with it.

Still, I try to write stuff that isn't too far out in left field, and that is somewhat related to what I'm teaching in class.

Below is my latest contribution. It is about the importance of learning poetry.

Why Write Poetry?

This term I’ve been working with my P5 class on writing poetry. I’m sure my students, as well as some of their parents, are thinking, “Why poetry?” That is a valid question, and I’ve decided to write this response to help explain my reasons.

First, I’d like to say that I can understand why people might wonder what practical use can poetry be put to. Most people have the misconception that poetry is just a flowery, romantic, fancy, and confusing way of saying simple things. There doesn’t seem to be anything good to be learned from it, when all we really want to learn is how to write strong, clear essays and reports for school and business. Clearly poetry has no purpose in that, does it?

The truth is, poetry does have a place in learning how to write strong, clear prose (prose is the kind of writing that is not poetry—essays, reports, novels, comic books, street signs, advertisements, newspapers, and other forms of writing that are not poetry can all be thought of as prose). Before I explain why I think poetry can be helpful in learning to write good prose, I am going to switch to a topic that I think is analogous to what we are examining: music and math.

Studies have proven that children who study music when they are young end up getting much higher scores in math and reasoning. It isn’t certain why this is, but one reason may be because in music, spatial relationships are very important, and musical intervals are aural representations of the relationships of differences in vibration frequencies, all of which are easily described mathematically. In other words, music can help a child to understand mathematical relationships on an intuitive level, before he or she ever learns how to add or subtract. Math and music don’t seem to be related at first glance, but when we look deeper, we can see how the understanding of one can strengthen the understanding of the other.

Now back to poetry. Poetry isn’t music, and writing isn’t math, but in fact all three are closely related. Writing, and language for that matter, is a symbolic process. We make sounds or marks on paper to represent things in the real world. Poetry (or at least good poetry) is the highest form of any language, and the most symbolic. Mathematics, too, is a symbolic language. It uses numbers, variables, and various other symbolic notation to represent ideas in the real world. Good math, like good poetry, is elegant, clear, and extremely expressive.

My hope is that by helping the students to understand some of the basic tools of poetry writing—sometimes called tropes or figures of speech—, I can help them to think and write on a higher level. Examples of figures of speech are metaphor, simile, personification, anthropomorphism, hyperbole, irony, and many more. In my next article I will discuss some of these figures of speech in more detail. Until then, the next time you are looking for something to read, why not give poetry a chance? It might make you think in a whole new way.

A cheesy ending, I know, but I'm limited to one page and I was running out of time.

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