Wisdom and Delight: Poetry in the Adult Literacy Classroom
All the elements necessary to learn how to read, and to read well, are contained within poetry. Poetry uses rhyme, rhythm, alliteration, and repetition, all uses of language found in reading workbooks that help reinforce the basic skills of reading. But beyond mere words, poetry uses imagery and metaphor to move readers to deeper levels of understanding and insight. It helps readers make connections between the words on the page and their own experiences, and it offers them glimpses into the lives and imaginations of people they’ve never met. In short, poetry offers the kinds of experiences that make reading both meaningful and memorable, experiences that Joel Conarroe calls the power of “transcendent art.” (Six American Poets, 1991).
Reading that reaches the level of “transcendent art” may seem like an all too lofty and unattainable goal in the context of adult literacy students, but it needn’t be, not if poetry is the gateway. Much great poetry uses simple words, but never to express simplistic ideas. Anyone who has ever seen a winter moon on a cold, clear night will recognize “the slim curved crook of the moon tonight,” described in Langston Hughes’s poem, “Winter Moon,” just as any parent will grasp the plaintive warning against discouragement of a mother to her son in Hughes’s line, “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair,” from his poem, “Mother to Son.”
Every public library holds a treasure trove of poetry to excite and interest adult new readers. Some books will be in the general adult collection. Consider, for example, collections of poets such as Langston Hughes, William Carlos Williams, Emily Dickinson, and Lucille Clifton, many of whose poems will be particularly accessible to new readers. Consider also contemporary poets who write in a vernacular style that explores the experiences of ordinary life. Gary Soto, for one, describes his poems as being about “commonplace, everyday things – baseball, an evening walk, a boyhood friendship, first love, fatherhood, a tree, rock ‘n’ roll, the homeless, dancing. The poems keep alive the small moments which add up to a large moment: life itself.” (A Fire in My Hands, 1990).
Much poetry of interest to adults will also be found in the children’s and young adult sections of the library. Books intended to introduce a young audience to some of the icons of poetry such as Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and Robert Frost all contain poems originally written for adults. The same is true for anthologies based on a particular theme such as Arnold Adoff’s I Am the Darker Brother, an attempt to bring black poets, contemporary writers as well as important voices from an earlier time, to the attention of young – or new – readers. And many well known poems written for adults have been made into picture books marketed to children but appealing to readers of all ages. Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening and Walt Whitman’s I Hear America Singing are two shining examples.
Consider the four examples below, then peruse the additional titles listed in the bibliography “Poetry for Adult Literacy Students” that follows. More titles of poetry books suitable for adult literacy students can be found in Chapter 5 of Adult New Readers Welcome Here: A Handbook for Librarians and Literacy Teachers. And of course, peruse the shelves of your local public library to discover some treasures of your own to share with your adult literacy students. Tell us what you’ve found!
A few lesson ideas:
♦ Poetry and Art – A poem and a work of art may be connected by something obvious such as subject, theme, or mood, or by some mysterious thread known to – or perhaps felt by – the reader/viewer alone. Whatever the connection, reading a poem inspired by or paired with a work of art adds several dimensions to the reading experience.
Consider Jan Greenberg’s Heart to Heart: New Poems Inspired by Twentieth-Century American Art. In the section of her book called “Stories,” we find a poem by Dan Masterson recalling a childhood spent above a barbershop – a childhood ended too soon by war – written in response to Edward Hopper’s “Early Sunday Morning.” Romare Bearden’s collage “Black Manhattan” inspired Siv Cedering to write a poem that is something of a word collage, naming the various things he sees in the city scene before him while also letting his mind wander in contemplation of the who and what and why of it all. Telling stories, especially about their own experiences, is a perfect starting point for students new to, and perhaps intimidated by, writing. Giving them pictures that will spark memories or inspire invented stories will not only give reluctant student writers a jump start, it will enrich their writing as they respond to the detail, color, shape, and feeling presented in the art work.
The next three sections of this book mirror the increased levels of understanding we want students to experience as their literacy grows. The section, “Voices,” invites poets to imagine themselves as the object or person pictured and speak with that imagined voice. “Impressions” invites writers to describe an artwork in observed detail, and in the process glean some deeper meaning. The last section, “Expressions,” invites poets to explore forms, shapes, colors, and light, as well as the way these elements affect the viewer, even if the subject of the artwork is not something recognizable.
In her book, Something Permanent, author Cynthia Rylant does for the Depression-era photographs of Walker Evans what the poets in Jan Greenberg’s book did for a variety of works of art. She imagines a story behind the faces and empty rooms that so vividly exclaimed the hardships felt by so many, especially people living in rural areas away from the reach of the media of that desperate time. Our own time is not lacking in striking images of disaster and hardship, so Rylant’s Something Permanent can serve as an example to inspire literacy students to imagine themselves into the photographs of contemporary disasters and their victims, creating stories, expressing feelings, and recognizing common bonds, no matter how distant or different the subjects in the pictures.
♦ Poems as Picture Books
Childhood memories are a well-spring for poetry as well as other forms of writing, as well as a comfortable place for new readers and writers to begin to put their own memories, thoughts, and observations into words on paper. Nikki Giovanni’s poem “
Susan Jeffers’ drawings for her illustration of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” in her book of the same title, echo Frost’s depiction of the serenity of new-fallen snow as well as the burden of duty inherent in his oft-quoted line, “And miles to go before I sleep.”
Another famous line that has made its way into the American vernacular and will be familiar to many American students and perhaps some ESOL students as well is the phrase, “one if by land, two if by sea.” Both the origin of that phrase and the iconic American story of which it is a part are dramatically brought to life in several illustrated versions of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s, “Paul Revere’s Ride.” In versions by illustrators Ted Rand (1990), Monica Vachula (2003) and Charles Santore (2003), the descriptive pictures accompanying the galloping rhythms of this poem help explain both the geography and the history behind the text. The poem is quoted exactly in each book, yet each illustrator’s work offers a slightly different mood. Comparing the three, and perhaps choosing a favorite, will engage students in a lively discussion of language, art, and the diversity of interpretation inherent in both. All three versions also include additional explanatory information to help set the larger historical context and will perhaps lead to further investigation into the life and times of Paul Revere and his revolutionary compatriots.
The bibliography of poetry books linked to the left lists many other titles. If you have titles to add, I'd love to hear about them.