A Reader-Response Approach to Poetry

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I introduced two mini-modules at the 2018 ERWC Leadership Conferences as part of my presentation, “Big Ideas from My Literacy Seminar.” This one, “A Reader-Response Approach to Poetry” was inspired by Louise Rosenblatt’s book, The Reader, The Text, The Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work. Rosenblatt begins the book with the image of two figures on a stage, the author and the reader, with the book between them. In various ages the spotlight focuses brightly on either the author or the text, but rarely the reader (1).

Rosenblatt then argues that the reader, not the author, creates the poem. The text of the poem is like an orchestra score in that the music doesn’t exist until it is performed. Because each reader brings different life experiences and background knowledge to the text, each reader will create a different poem. Being comfortable with this process is part of learning to enjoy poetry.

New Criticism taught us the techniques of close reading, which are still in common use today. New Critics also taught us that to try to recover the author’s intention was the “Intentional Fallacy,” and that to focus on the effects on the reader was to engage in the “Pathetic Fallacy.” The spotlight of the New Critics focuses exclusively on the text, and on using the techniques of close reading to produce the very best reading of that text.

A typical literature course today will apply close reading, but unlike New Criticism will include reference to the author’s biography and historical context. The dominant question is usually, “What does it mean?” and a received interpretation is often given. The result, especially with poetry, is that students believe that there is a “correct” interpretation that they are struggling to find. This has a number of negative effects, such as going immediately to the internet to discover the “correct” reading and a fear of interpreting poetry on their own. Thus it is common for students to say, even English majors in college, that they don’t like poetry.

This mini-module is designed to counteract that fear and help students read and enjoy poetry on their own, sharing their experiences with others. In working through the module, students

  • Read the poem quickly and write down their impressions,
  • Re-read to confirm and and develop their impressions,
  • Share their impressions with others in a small group,
  • Consider important details,
  • Negotiate a consensus interpretation,
  • Write a paragraph describing their evolving interpretation of the poem.

In this approach, reading a poem is both a personal and a social experience. The emphasis is on engaging with the text and connecting it to experience, not on discovering authorial intention or a “correct” reading. Any poem could be plugged into this process. I often choose a poem that has some important detail that students may miss on first readings, but discover on closer readings, so that they can experience the shift in interpretation that happens when making a sudden connection. (Sometimes I give them the information.  I call this “throwing in a fact bomb.”)  In the workshop, I used “Declaration” by Tracy K. Smith. Students may not initially realize that the poem echoes language from the Declaration of Independence. I have also used “Sundown” by Jorie Graham, in which students may not know that the phrase “on Omaha” refers to a D-Day invasion beach. These poems can easily be found on the internet.

The mini-module can be downloaded from this link.

Update: English teacher extraordinaire Carol Jago has published an essay, “Agents of Imagination,” on the Poetry Foundation site.  It’s about teaching science fiction poetry and also includes a poem by Tracy K. Smith, who seems to have a talent for writing beautiful, evocative, yet approachable poems.   This essay is a mini-module in essay form!  Highly recommended!

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