From Homer to Hip Hop
In The Sounds of Poetry, Former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky writes that the reader’s body is the medium of the poem: not the page, the human body.
If you think about the construction of the human skull, with its nasal passages and high-domed palette, you realize it is an exquisitely designed resonating chamber. Our larynx is more flexible than any musical instrument. We were made to speak and sing, and poems, like stories, myths, fairy tales, legends and prayers, were passed on from one person to the next through speech for tens of thousands of years. The human body as the medium for poetry predates printed books by millennia.
Many students don’t know that poetry comes out of an oral tradition that runs from Homer to hip hop. Beowulf and The Odyssey were as much chanted and acted-out as recited from memory, and accompanied by music played on a string instrument and/or drums. Our contemporary hip hop artists, like the balladeers of Elizabethan London who made songs and poems from the news of the day, are in a direct line that extends back to the ancient bards.
Even long after the invention of the printing press, it was common to listen to poetry read aloud. Many people from older generations have fond memories of teachers reading poems to them in class. These readings weren’t followed by literary analysis, quizzes or writing assignments. It was accepted that listening to poetry was a good in and of itself.
We all know we return to activities that give us pleasure and which we find personally rewarding. One way to ensure students become readers of poetry is to introduce it to them in the context of something to be shared and enjoyed.
- Start each class by having a student read a poem aloud to the class. Allow the student to pick the poem. It should not be one they’ve written or one by anyone they know. The student doesn’t have to explain the choice. Listening to a poem read aloud every day can just become part of the daily practice of the class, a way to share the experience of hearing poems aloud as an end in itself.
- Students can read a poem from a Dodge Festival Poetry Kit for Teachers (Email email@example.com to get your free copy.), Poetry 180, Poetry Daily, Poetry Foundation, Poets.org or one they’ve found on their own.
- To take this activity to the next step, try having a second person read the same poem aloud.
If you make time for discussion, some questions you might want to explore:
- What’s the difference between encountering a poem on the page or aloud?
- What happens when the same poem is read aloud by different people?
- What happens if you experiment with different performance styles?
- Another option is to watch the Dodge Festival videos on You Tube, and then read the poems on the page. What is different about having the person who wrote the poem read it aloud?
- You may be required to have your students learn technical terms like assonance, alliteration, slant rhyme, meter, blank verse, etc. One way to make this process more engaging is to listen to examples first, discuss what makes a poem sound interesting or memorable, and then identify the terms for the sound devices the poet is using.
- For a school-wide reach, incorporate reading a poem aloud or poet introduction into the school’s morning announcements or, if your school has it, a morning assembly of the student body. This could be on a daily, weekly or monthly basis.
Common Core Standards:
- Key Ideas and Details: RL.9-10.2, RL.11-12.2
- Craft and Structure: RL.9-10.4, RL.9-10.6, RL.11-12.4, RL.11-12.5, RL.11-12.6
- Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity: RL.9-10.10, RL.11-12.10
Speaking and Listening
- Comprehension and Collaboration: SL.9-10.1, SL.11-12.1
- Vocabulary Acquisition and Use: L.9-10.4, L.9-10.5
- Knowledge of Language: L.11-12.3, L.11-12.5